MA/PhD Degree Requirements: Examinations

Timeline and Satisfactory Progress:
Students should complete the PhD exams in of the fourth year of graduate study (third year for those entering with a master’s degree) but must complete the PhD exams by the end of the fourth year (third year for those entering with a master’s degree) in order to be making satisfactory progress.
Examinations are not administered during the summer.

After completing their coursework, students enter a period of directed reading, at the end of which they take their PhD General Examinations. The PhD exams consist of written and oral components, to be completed within a three-week period. This page includes information about:

PhD exams play a central role in the professional development of graduate students as scholars and teachers. They help students:

  • Develop areas of expertise for teaching and scholarship.
  • Understand and demonstrate knowledge of the history, stakes, and conversations occurring within a chosen field.
  • Cultivate the critical reading, writing, research, and professional skills required for deadline-driven academic projects and long-term independent research.
  • Discover and refine research inquiries that emerge from a contextualized understanding of a field as a prelude to intervening in and contributing to this field.

All students entering the MA/PhD program in 2018 or thereafter must write a field statement for their written exam (described below). Those entering before fall 2018 may choose whether to write a field statement or to use the old format, a 72-hour exam in which the student produces written responses to questions from their committee. Answers to FAQs about the differences between the two formats may be found here.

Exam Committee

The PhD Examination Committee consists of at least four members: a chair, two regular members, and a Graduate School Representative. The committee advises students on remaining coursework, supervises and approves the PhD exam reading lists, directs and mentors students on reading for PhD exams, evaluates the written exams, and administers the oral exam

The chair and at least one of the regular members of the PhD exam committee must be from the Department of English. The student should consult with their committee before adding a faculty member from outside the Department of English as a co-chair or regular member.

Note that students must secure the agreement of faculty, including the GSR, to serve on their PhD exam committee. Faculty reserve the right not to serve on a PhD exam committee.

After securing the agreement of all committee members, students present the names of committee members to the English Graduate Advising Office so that the committee may be officially constituted in MyGrad Program.

For details regarding the UW Graduate School’s policies on doctoral supervisory committees, see the UW Graduate School website: Memo 13: Supervisory Committee for Graduate Students and Doctoral Supervisory Committee Roles and Responsibilities.

Directed Reading

Reading Lists

Upon completion of coursework, students enter a period of directed reading. Under the guidance of their chair, and with the support of the other regular committee members, students construct three reading lists for their general exams.

The first list should constitute a primary field. It might be defined by the rubrics of period, nation, and genre, but could also be a specialization such as rhetoric and composition studies, applied linguistics, history of English, or the environmental or digital humanities. This area should be recognized by relevant professional organizations such as the MLA, ASA, CCCC, RSA, TESOL and AAAL. For some fields, this list may focus on a canonical set of texts; for others it may explore debates surrounding the constitution of the field itself.

The second and third lists are flexible and might include the following possibilities: a second field constituting a distinct specialization from the primary field; a sub-area within or adjacent to the primary field of specialization; a genre; an approach, theory, or method; a conceptual problem; or a clearly delimited topic of the student’s choice.

The length of lists will vary depending on the topic and other circumstances. Forty to sixty entries per list is common, but final determination rests with the chair and the committee members. By the time that they receive formal approval, all exam lists should have titles that accurately reflect their contents and must begin with rationales that concisely (500 words or less) account for why the examinee has chosen a particular set of texts.

Sample reading lists are available in the English Graduate Advising Office.

Reading List Approval Meeting

Once all three reading lists are constructed, the student submits copies to their chair and regular committee members. With the chair and regular committee members’ consent, the student schedules an in-person meeting to discuss the lists, the format of the written and oral exams, and a tentative schedule for the exams. At this meeting, the committee formally approves the reading lists by signing the Reading List Approval Form, which the student submits with original signatures to the English Graduate Advising Office along with a copy of the approved lists.

The reading list meeting and reading list approval must occur at least six weeks prior to the written exam.

Written Exam

The following written exam format was launched in autumn 2018. Students who entered the program prior to Autumn 2018 may choose whether to write a field statement or to use the old format, a 72-hour exam in which the student produces written responses to questions from their committee.

Field Statement

As the student synthesizes information from their reading lists, they may begin working on their field statement and syllabus. The field statement, to be written in consultation with committee members, should be 20-30 double-spaced pages (not including the bibliography) and must define:

  • the student's field or fields of expertise,
  • the student's methodology, and
  • a research question.

The nature of the document that students produce will vary depending on their field and research interests. The field statement might proceed as a single discussion or as a series of related sections. The formal flexibility of the field statement should give exam committees some discretion over what their students produce while ensuring that there is a uniform purpose to the endeavor.

When the field statement and syllabus are finished, they are submitted to the English Graduate Advising Office for formal review by the committee.


A syllabus on one of the written exam areas is required as a component in the student’s preparation for the profession and to prompt thinking about texts not only in scholarly but also in pedagogical terms. The syllabus should be at least two to four pages and include a description of the course, course rationale, and reading list. The syllabus is to be turned in with the field statement.


Although a student may work on the written exam over an extended period of time, the final draft of the field statement and syllabus should be submitted to the Graduate Advising Office by the end of Week 5 in the quarter that the exam is due. At the same time, the student must provide the names of their committee members and their general availability for the oral exam to the English Graduate Advising staff.

Upon receiving the final draft of the field statement and syllabus, the English Graduate Advising staff forwards the field statement and syllabus to the student’s committee members for their official review and comment. At the same time, the English Graduate Advising staff will contact the committee to schedule a date and time for the oral exam about three weeks later.


Committee members have one week to read the written exam and provide comments to the committee chair and Graduate Advising Office. A non-response within nine days constitutes a pass. After receiving the other committee member’s comments, the chair then shares all of the comments with the student at once. If there is disagreement among the readers, the chair must call a meeting to attempt to resolve the disagreement. Generally, a vote of failure by two members of the committee should be reported as a failure, but there should be a meeting to discuss the matter.

A student may retake a failed examination only once, and may not proceed to oral general examination until a failed written examination has been retaken and passed. The student will have at least one week to review the comments and prepare for the oral exam.

Oral Exam

After passing the written exam, a student must pass an oral exam. The oral exam is a comprehensive examination intended to extend and engage the breadth of the student’s exam lists, intellectual training and background, including issues of pedagogy. It might also be used productively to help the student think about the next step, which is coming up with a dissertation topic and prospectus.

The oral exam is scheduled for a two-hour block and it is conducted by the doctoral supervisory committee. The chair, at least two regular members, and the GSR must attend the exam.

How It Is Conducted

  • The English Graduate Advising Office provides the warrant.
  • The committee chair officiates.
  • The student may bring one note card but no other written materials.
  • At the beginning of the examination, the student is asked to step out of the room while the committee discusses logistics, how to conduct the exam and their approach to questioning.
  • Students may be asked for clarification or amplification of issues raised in the written exams, questions about other works on the reading lists, or questions about dissertation and further research plans.
  • At the conclusion of the exam, the student is asked to step out of the room while the committee discusses the student’s performance. Upon arrival at a decision, the committee chair invites the student back into the room to inform the student of the committee’s decision.
  • The committee chair marks the decision and secures signatures from all committee members on the general examination warrant.
  • The signed warrant must be returned immediately to the English Graduate Advising Office for conveyance of the examination results to the UW Graduate School through MyGrad Program.


  • The student is recommended for continuance in the PhD program, and encouraged to proceed with the doctoral dissertation.
  • Re-examine after a further period of study.The oral general examination may be retaken once. A second failure results in termination from the program.
  • Fail. The candidate is not recommended for further work towards the doctoral degree. The effect of this recommendation is termination of the student’s enrollment in the doctoral program at the conclusion of the current quarter.