PhD Program

For the current application submission deadline, please see the How to Apply page.

Program Code - E25PH


Applications for doctoral study are considered for fall admission only. All students admitted to our doctoral program are offered full financial aid in a combination of fellowships and teaching assistantships. Prospective students must submit all application materials by the deadline listed above. The English Department admissions process occurs once a year and ends in late February.

When reviewing applications, we look for evidence of keen intellectual ability, skill in literary analysis, scholarly potential, and a strong sense of academic purpose. We do not emphasize any single factor, but pay close attention to written work and to applicants' competency in one or more foreign languages. We typically expect to receive between 350 and 400 applications for admission to the doctoral program, with a target class size of between 6 and 8 students. The recipients of admissions offers have, on average, GRE Verbal scores of 166/700 (between new and old scoring systems), Quantitative of 151/650, and Analytical of 5.0. An undergraduate GPA over 3.5 is highly desirable.

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 The Graduate School website. All students admitted to the PhD program are, without exception, guaranteed full funding (stipend plus tuition) for five academic years and four summers. The Ph.D. in English takes a minimum of four years, though candidates almost always take at least five years to finish. Though the Graduate School allows students nine years in which to complete their degree, but we strongly encourage students to finish within six.


We require from our Ph.D. students some expertise in the full range of English and American literature and culture. To that end, students must complete at least four courses in literature before 1800 and four courses in literature after 1800. We also expect our students to specialize in one field--namely, a major period, genre, or special area such as criticism, literary theory, or interdisciplinary studies.

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) or an upper-level course with readings primarily in the language in question. It is preferred that this requirement be fulfilled by the end of the second year, but all students must do so before advancing to candidacy at the end of their third. Students whose first language is not English are exempt from this requirement.

Year One

Doctoral students at Northwestern spend most of their time on course work during the first two years. In common with other first-year students in English and Comparative Literature, they enroll in "Introduction to Graduate Studies," a course focusing on contexts of method, theory, and history for the advanced study of literature. Beyond that, the student's goal is to meet course requirements, to strengthen and deepen her or his background in literary studies, and to choose a field of specialization.

At the end of the first year, the department's graduate faculty reviews each student's performance to decide whether they will continue in the doctoral program or be granted a terminal 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, by 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 will prove 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 PhD 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

In their second and third years, students serve as teaching assistants and take two rather than three courses per quarter. At the end of the second year, they sit for the first part of a Qualifying Exam in their field of specialization, demonstrating mastery of basic texts from the department's required reading list.

In the summer between their second and third years, students develop their own more focused lists for the second part of the Qualifying Exam, in consultation with a committee of advisors. This part of the exam sets the stage for students to write a dissertation prospectus, a concise description of a significant and original scholarly or critical project. Three advisers and the Graduate Committee must approve the prospectus by the end of the student's third year.

Candidacy & Completion

Upon successful completion of all course and language requirements, the qualifying exams, and the prospectus, students advance to formal candidacy in the Graduate School. By this point, Ph.D. candidates have met all degree requirements except the dissertation.

Once a student is admitted to candidacy, the examining committee normally continues as the dissertation committee. Students remain in close contact with their advisers, 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 advisers. The dissertation is then submitted to the Graduate School and the candidate approved by the department for the Ph.D.

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Upcoming Event

English Department Prize Ceremony
May 29, 20153:30 PM - 5:30 PM

February 10, 2015