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MA/PhD Degree Requirements: Examinations

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 four-week period. This page includes information about:

Purpose of the Exams

The qualifying exam has two, closely inter-related aims:

  1. To demonstrate broad reading in a field or interlocking fields of study, and an understanding of defining issues and debates within that (those) field(s); and
  2. To explore and develop a research focus, situate its core question(s), and articulate its stakes, which will carry through to prospectus and the dissertation.  

A “field” in this context means a recognized area of expertise. A ready measure of existing and emerging fields can be found in academic job postings (the Modern Language Association job list, in particular), and (to a secondary degree) in the categories that organize academic publishing, or forums/divisions in national professional associations (e.g. MLA, ASA, CCCC, RSA, TESOL or AAAL). Thus a field is not simply a topic; it pertains to recognized areas of study within professional academic contexts.

Some examples:  African American and African Diasporic literature, Environmental Humanities, New Media Studies, Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Premodern English Studies, Victorian Studies, Queer Studies, Literacy Studies, Rhetoric and Composition Studies, Technical and Professional Communication are all fields. If you read through the MLA job list, you will find actual positions advertised for specialists in these (and many other) areas.  

It’s important to note that while every student must identify at least one field, most students will seek to demonstrate broad knowledge in two (or possibly even three) interrelated fields. For example, Medieval Studies and Gender Studies; Contemporary U.S. literature, Science Fiction Studies, and Queer Studies; Early Modern Literature and Textual Studies; Literacy Studies and Composition Studies; Second Language Writing and Genre Studies; Second Language Acquisition and World Englishes.

Exam Committee

The PhD Examination Committee consists of at least four members: a chair, two regular members, and a Graduate School Representative (GSR). 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, including the role of the GSR, see the UW Graduate School website: UW Graduate School Policy 4.2: Supervisory Committee for Graduate Students.

Directed Reading

Upon completion of coursework, students enter a period of directed reading. During this period, students enroll in up to 10 credits per quarter of English 597 in order to maintain full-time enrollment. All students enrolled in English 597 should connect regularly with their chair (at a minimum, twice a quarter) to vet ideas, discuss concerns, and report on progress. At least one of these quarterly check-ins should take the form of an in-person meeting (or video conference).  In general, the advisor should be apprised of the student’s progress and the student should feel able to connect with their adviser as questions and challenges regarding exam preparation arise.  The rights and obligations of students and mentors are outlined in The Graduate Student/Faculty Rights and Responsibilities document.  Students should review the document with their Chair and committee members and discuss mutual expectations for their working relationship during the first quarter of enrollment in 597. 

Reading Lists

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. Because different lists will compile materials of vastly differing length and density, it can be challenging to norm the size of the lists. In general, each list should include somewhere between 40 and 50 items.

Each list shall be accompanied by a brief (250 word) description. A list is always only a sampling of work in the field, and so the description should answer the following questions: What were some of the central considerations that guided the selection of materials? What is this list meant to represent?

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

A. Reading Lists for Language and Rhetoric Students

  1. Field List I: The first list should constitute a primary field, such as Composition Studies, Applied Linguistics, History of English, Rhetorical Studies, or Literacy Studies. This area should be recognized by relevant professional organizations such as CCCC, RSA, TESOL and AAAL.

  2. Field List II: The second list is 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; or an approach, theory, or method.

  3. The Research Topic list: The function of this list is to assemble a set of materials that correspond to the student’s provisional (anticipated) dissertation focus.

NB: Simply put, the function of the research topic list is to position the student so that, at the point of completion of the exams, they will be well positioned to undertake a dissertation on that topic: they will be immersed in the topic, in command of relevant contexts, and able to pinpoint further avenues of reading/research needed to support the dissertation. The research list is not the same thing as the dissertation bibliography (though there will typically be more or less substantial overlap); however, after reading and engaging the research list, the student should have the resources and preparation to construct a dissertation topic and to develop the dissertation bibliography for the prospectus and beyond.

B. Reading Lists for Literature and Culture Students

The first two lists are defined as “field” lists.  While no list can be (nor should it even aspire to be) comprehensive, these lists enable breadth and depth of reading in defined areas.  Having read and engaged these lists, students should feel grounded in their primary fields.   Ideally, students should be able to include materials already encountered through coursework; at the same time, the function of this list is to expand their scope of knowledge and to “backfill” gaps.

  1. The Primary Cultural Field(s) list: This list identifies the student’s primary literary or cultural focus. The focus might be singular (e.g., 18th C British literature, Asian American and Asian Transpacific literature) or the list might bring together a smaller range of work from two allied fields (e.g. Contemporary U.S. and Latinx literature; British and American Modernism). The Literature/Cultural Field list should be predominantly composed of primary sources, supplemented as needed by secondary sources that represent defining scholarly approaches to the field.

  2. The Primary Critical Field(s) list: This list might focus on a primary critical approach (e.g., Queer Studies, Environmental Humanities, or Critical Race Studies) or it might bring together a smaller range of work from two or three allied fields (e.g., Feminism and New Media Studies; Critical Race and Postcolonial Studies).

  3. The Research Topic list: The function of this list is to assemble a set of materials that correspond to the student’s provisional (anticipated) dissertation focus.  While the relation of this list to the primary field lists should be apparent, this list need not be conceived as (merely) a subset of the primary fields that represents one’s particular area of concentration (e.g., the fields are Victorian literature and Gender studies, and the research focus is the sensation novel).  In one sense, to be sure, this list will be more narrowly focused than the primary field list (as it hones in on a specific research topic), but in another sense, it might also be broader: for example, if the research focus is on a particular genre or topos, the research list might be organized genealogically and thus involve materials outside the purview of the primary fields (e.g., the sensation novel list might include precursors and successors to the genre, such as 18th C Gothic and 20th C Horror, as well as readings in genre theory).

NB: Simply put, the function of the research topic list is to position the student so that, at the point of completion of the exams, they will be well positioned to undertake a dissertation on that topic: they will be immersed in the topic, in command of relevant contexts, and able to pinpoint further avenues of reading/research needed to support the dissertation.  The research list is not the same thing as the dissertation bibliography (though there will typically be more or less substantial overlap); however, after reading and engaging the research list, the student should have the resources and preparation to construct a dissertation topic and to develop the dissertation bibliography for the prospectus and beyond.

Reading List Approval Meeting

The lists (with short descriptions) should be assembled and finalized by the time the student has completed 10 credit hours of English 597. 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 to the English Graduate Advising Office along with a copy of the approved lists.

Written Exam

Components of the Written Exam

The written exam consists of two components: (1) syllabi and rationales, and (2) the research statement.

1. Syllabi and Rationales

This portion of the written exam is meant to demonstrate the student’s broad command of and qualifications to teach in their areas of expertise.

The student will design two syllabi: one for a general course in a primary field (an introduction or overview); the other for a topics course. The precise way in which the syllabi will reflect the student’s fields is flexible: Students might choose to design an introductory syllabus related to one field and a topics course related to another field – or they might develop syllabi which cut across two fields.  The two syllabi should, however, be distinct in their focus and the materials on which they draw.  Each syllabus should include a course description, and a complete list of materials, organized into a schedule of reading.  Each syllabus should also make clear the level at which the course would be offered (lower division/general education; upper division/course in the major; graduate course) and (particularly if it is a course designed for an institution unlike UW) the kind of institution at which it might be offered (e.g, liberal arts college; community college; an institution outside the U.S.).  In addition, each syllabus should be accompanied by a brief (3-5 page) rationale, which explains the design choices: What does the class foreground and why? What is the principle of selection of the materials? (This might entail an explanation, not only of what the designer sought to include, but what they opted to exclude.) How does the framing and selection of materials reflect (or develop or interrogate) established or emerging issues and debates in the field?  Students might also signal which one or two threads from their teaching philosophy inform the course design (e.g., commitments to antiracist and equity-oriented praxes, accessible and inclusive learning environments, community-engaged approaches, digital humanities, etc.). Finally, if they wish, students may incorporate other elements of a conventional syllabus (e.g., writing assignments), but this is not a requirement for the exam syllabus and should only be included if it elucidates course aims and pedagogy.

In place of one or both syllabi, students may substitute equivalent ways of representing a field to audiences and publics beyond the classroom context (e.g., a website or exhibit).

2. The Research Statement (20-30 pages, double-spaced)

The aim of the research statement is threefold:

  1. To motivate and explicate the research interests which will carry over to the dissertation:
    1. What questions does the student aim to explore?
    2. What are the stakes (historically, methodologically and/or critically) in this line of research?
  2. To contextualize the research inquiry:
    1. How does it relate to relevant research directions and debates in the student’s field(s)?
    2. How does it intervene in those debates and what might it contribute?
  3. To develop how the research inquiry will be conducted:
    1. On what theories and (or) methods will it draw and why? What are their affordances and limitations?
    2. What materials (genres, media, archives, data, etc) will the research engage? For students on the literature and culture track, the research statement should offer a demonstration of this engagement, via a close-reading of one or two touchstone texts.

Students may choose to adopt the structure of presentation implied by these questions (that is, to respond to the questions in the order given), or they may follow an outline of their own devising.  In any case, however, all research statements should provide answers to the questions posed above.

Timeline and Submission

Although a student may work on the written exam over an extended period of time, the final draft of the syllabi and research statement 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.

While students are encouraged to seek their Chair’s feedback on draft components of the written exam, they may share no more than two drafts of the syllabi and research statement prior to formal submission of the written exam.  

Upon receiving the final draft of the syllabi and research statement, the English Graduate Advising staff forwards the documents 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 four weeks later.


Committee members have two weeks to read the written exam and provide comments to the committee chair and Graduate Advising Office.  The exam will be assessed in relation to the criteria for syllabi and research statements outlined above, using the department's exam rubric. [NB: If a committee member does not respond within 15 days of receiving the written exam, then their vote is null.] After receiving every committee member’s comments, the chair then shares these comments with the student.  In the event of disagreement among the readers, the chair must call a meeting of the full committee to discuss the strengths and limitations of the written exam.  If at the conclusion of the meeting, the majority of the committee members vote to fail the exam, it will be recorded as a failing exam. 

A student may retake a failed written 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.  A passing result on the written exam indicates that the student has demonstrated their preparation to teach and conduct dissertation research in their fields. The oral exam further measures a student’s ability to respond cogently and knowledgeably to questions about the written exam and the contents of the reading lists.   Thus questions on the oral exam will engage the contents of the written exam (the syllabi, rationales, and research statement), but may also touch more broadly on materials, approaches, or debates represented on the student’s lists.  In general, the discussion of the research statement in the oral will develop into a discussion of next steps:  what has the student learned through writing the research statement and how has it honed their thinking on the focus and the framing of the dissertation?

Because the oral exam asks students to think on their feet and to present themselves as a qualified scholar and a teacher, most students will experience it as a high-stress situation.  Before the oral exam, students should have the opportunity to discuss with their chairs what to expect in the oral, as well as basic strategies for navigating the oral exam format.  Committees should bear in mind that students may experience nervousness and anxiety, and should make every effort to conduct the exam in a generous and humane fashion.  Students should be aware that the Graduate School Representative (GSR) is there precisely to represent their interests and make sure that the exam has been conducted fairly. 

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.

The oral exam satisfies the Graduate School's requirement for a General Examination, at which point the student attains candidate status. A passing result on the oral exam signals the committee’s confidence that the student is prepared to teach in their exam fields, and to proceed to dissertation research. The Graduate School's policies regarding the General Examination and admission to candidacy for the doctoral degree are detailed in UW Graduate School Policy 1.1.4.

How It Is Conducted

  • The English Graduate Advising Office provides the warrant.
  • The committee chair officiates
  • The student should bring a copy of their written exam to the oral; they should also bring pen and paper, for the purposes of note-taking.  They may, if they wish, bring a few written notes to facilitate their opening comments (see below).  However, at no point in the exam should the student read from a prepared text.  
  • 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. When the student is re-admitted to the room, they are generally given the opening 5-10 minutes of the exam to briefly address some of the committee’s responses to the written portions. 
  • 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.


Students with a documented disability that may bear on their preparation for the written exam or their performance on the oral exam are encouraged to reach out to the Director of Graduate Studies and to their committee chair early in the process (ideally, by the time of the Reading List meeting), to discuss how their DRS accommodations might fit with this exam format.


  • 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.