Doctoral Program in Composition & Rhetoric

The UW-Madison PhD in English with a specialization in Composition & Rhetoric is an advanced research degree designed to prepare candidates to do scholarly and pedagogical work of a high order. The PhD degree is conferred by the University of Wisconsin-Madison after a minimum of three years of study beyond the Bachelor's degree. At least one half of the residence credit required for this degree must be earned on the Madison campus. Students should consult the Graduate School Catalog regarding residence credit, which is different from the degree requirements described in this document (for example, as the Graduate Bulletin states, "Each candidate must spend at least one continuous academic year beyond the master's level as a full-time graduate student"). Questions regarding residence are to be taken to the Graduate School, the only authority on the subject.

Overall graduate study moves from general knowledge of the field to specialized preparation and research capability. General preparation occurs in prereqs and coursework and culminates in approval of the prelims portfolio (written and oral). Specialized preparation focuses on the dissertation and coursework supporting it, including minor and research methods courses (tool requirement). While these phases occur in sequence, they should be seen as independent forms of preparation. Each will engage you in different kinds of intellectual challenge. Coursework gives you background and helps you to experiment with a variety of topics, perspectives, approaches, and skills. Reading for your portfolio gives you theoretical and historical breadth and depth for future research and teaching and helps you to reinterpret your coursework within broader traditions and scholarly debates. With the dissertation you specialize in a project that captures your strongest interest and enables you to make a timely contribution to scholarship in the field.

Graduate students’ teaching experience follows a similar pattern of development. In your first year as a teaching assistant in English 100, you will receive extensive training and mentoring as you assist instruction in the largest introductory composition course taught in the College of Letters & Science. Your subsequent work as an instructor in English 201 (Intermediate Composition) will provide you the opportunity and support to discover your teaching style and reflect on a philosophy. In addition, Wisconsin graduate students frequently work in the highly respected tutorial Writing Center, which serves the entire University. Beyond these experiences, many professional opportunities exist for work as administrative assistants in composition courses and numerous campus writing programs.

Timeline for Completion of the Program

 Year 1

 Complete 3-4 Comp/Rhet courses, including 703 if offered. Fulfill language requirement and any make-up prerequisites. Begin reading for the prelim.

 Year 2

 a. Complete 2-3 Comp/Rhet courses, including 703 if offered and another tool requirement course. Decide on sublists for prelim. Prepare and read for the portfolio.
 b. [Optional] Take prelims in subsquent August or January. Be admitted to candidacy.

 Year 3

 a. Complete four course minor.
 b. Gain approval of prelims portfolio. Be admitted to candidacy.

 Year 4

 Dissertation proposal defense held sometime between November and February (within 6 months of passing prelims). Complete approximately one half of dissertation by the end of the summer.

 Year 5

 Apply for jobs beginning in October. Complete dissertation.

By Graduate School regulations, every student must complete the dissertation within five calendar years after admission to candidacy. Where necessary, the student, joined by the dissertation director and the Director of Graduate Studies, may appeal for an extension beyond five years, with a rationale for the appeal and a proposed absolute deadline for completion. (rev. 9/2004)

Faculty Mentor

Upon admission to the program, you will be assigned a faculty mentor who will normally serve in that capacity until you are admitted to candidacy. After that, your dissertation director will become your mentor. Your mentor will help to guide you in your professional development and you should be in frequent contact with that person. Among topics for discussion are academic progress, minor selection, timing and preparation of prelims portfolio, professional activity and the like. Whenever you have questions or concerns, your mentor is the first person to consult. Your dissertation director will be your primary aide during the job search. Of course, other faculty members are always available too for consultation. However, your mentor is there to be your main guide until you have selected a dissertation director.

Your faculty mentor will meet with you at least a couple of times in your first semester. Each semester after that, your faculty mentor will schedule a 30-minute mentoring meeting with you to explore a wide range of topics, including...

* Course selection
* Planning for a minor that supports your identity and future plans as a teacher-scholar.
* Deciding on the timing of your prelims.
* Discussing how to design a prelim question and reading list, and preparing your prelim essays

Graduate Advisor

The grad advisor is the clearinghouse for course registration and for tracking your formal progress through the program. You will be notified at the start of each registration period when it is time to schedule an appointment with the area advisor. When necessary, the grad advisor superauthorizes you into the English Department courses that you choose and makes sure that you are meeting requirements and timetables. For specific questions about the program or to review your formal record, consult the area advisor. The area advisor also coordinates aspects of the qualifying exam, which in CompRhet is a Prelims Portfolio. For technical questions concerning umbrella regulations of the department or the Graduate School, the Graduate Division remains the last word.

Coursework within the program is designed to offer you a balanced background in rhetorical theory, history, and criticism; contemporary composition theory; literacy; and research methods. We offer courses in a regular, rotating sequence, two courses each semester; all courses are available at least once in a two-year period. Within the first four semesters of your program, you are expected to take six CompRhet courses plus courses in research methods. The following courses are offered on a regular rotation:

Fall: English 700 Introduction to Composition and Rhetoric

In alternating years: English 702 and English 703

Typically in each semester there will be one rhetoric-focused course and one composition/literacy focused course.

* English 799 (Directed Reading): English 799 is for specialized, not foundational coursework, and may be appropriate as either a minor course or a course used to satisfy the tool requirement. Students may take English 799 as their sixth major course only with the agreement of the faculty sponsor and the Graduate Advisor.

Course Load

Ordinarily students who are also teaching assistants enroll in two courses per semester. We do not recommend a higher course load. If you find yourself with extra time, it can be profitably spent reading from the standing reading lists.

A. Credit Enrollment

A normally enrolled student must carry a full graduate course load, 8-12 credits (or 6-8 credits if the student is a teaching assistant teaching 44% or more of full-time, the maximum number of credits varying according to the teaching load), until the English Course Requirements (B) have been completed. Students who have satisfied the Graduate School's full-time semester requirement, may reduce their course load in the semester in which these requirements are completed, and thereafter.

A student may take English 999 (reading for prelims) for the first time in the semester in which that student is completing the English Course Requirements (B). Until the English Course Requirements have been completed, a student must obtain permission from the Graduate Committee in order to take English 799 (independent reading) and may take it only on a graded basis (rather than S/U).

B. Course Requirements

All course requirements must have been completed with grades of B or better before the student takes the preliminary examination.

Six courses must be taken in the Composition and Rhetoric Area. One of these courses may be English 703, Research Methods.

C. Grades

In all post-Master's courses taken at UW-Madison, a normally enrolled student in the Ph.D. program must maintain at all times at least a 3.50 G.P.A. in English courses and an overall G.P.A. of at least 3.25, and a G.P.A. each semester of at least 3.00. (In computing the G.P.A., an Incomplete will be counted as a B. The grade of S will not be counted in computing the G.P.A.) A student who fails to meet this requirement will be placed on Departmental Probation (see Section I below). It should be noted that a grade of BC or lower cannot be used to meet an English Course Requirement.

D. Incompletes

Incompletes will be allowed only in extraordinary circumstances, and they must be removed within eight weeks of the following semester of registration. If they are not removed within that time, they will revert to a failure unless special dispensation is granted by the Director of Graduate Studies. At no time may a student have more than six credits of Incompletes. The preliminary examination may not be taken by a student who has an Incomplete.

Tool Requirement

In addition to demonstrating at least an adequate competence in one foreign language, students must have advanced proficiency in research methods. Ordinarily, this requirement is fulfilled by taking two courses that focus explicitly on the problems and practice of research. English 703 (Research Methods) counts toward fulfillment of the tool requirement. Students can go on to complete this requirement by taking an independent study course with a CompRhet faculty member assisting that faculty member with ongoing research. As an alternative, an array of qualitative and quantitative research methods courses offered in other programs and departments also can fulfill this requirement. Normally, all tool requirements will be met before admission to candidacy.

Foreign Language Requirement

The foreign language requirement may be satisfied by:

  • Completing four semesters of college-level work in the language within the previous five years, with no grade lower than B
  • Completing a graduate degree elsewhere and using the previous certification in one foreign language granted for that degree by a United States, Canadian, or British university, after completing two semesters here as a normal enrolled student with a minimum GPA of 3.5 in English courses
  • Using a native language, when it is something other than English
  • Passing the examination administered either by the Educational Testing Service with a score of 520 or higher
  • Passing a translation test administered by a UW-Madison department designated for this purpose by the Department of English

51-Credit Rule

The Graduate School requires that you take a minimum of 32 credits in residence at UW-Madison (minimum 51 credits post BA/BS) in order to qualify for a UW-Madison degree. You also are required to be continually enrolled while pursuing your degree. To help students meet the credit rule and stay enrolled during periods when you may not be taking regular courses, the English Department provides credit slots:

*English 999 (Reading for Prelims) to be taken during the period in which you complete your prelims portfolio.
* English 990 (Dissertation Research), taken during the period in which you are writing your dissertation.

Prelims Portfolio

Prelims occurs on the cusp of shifting from general to specialized preparation and, in CompRhet, takes the form of a portfolio rather than the more usual sit-down exam. You are eligible to submit your prelims portfolio only after you have first completed all major coursework and either the tool requirement or the foreign language requirement; the minor and the tool or language foreign requirement, which ever is not complete before prelims, may be completed after prelims.

Some students choose to submit their prelims portfolio at the end of the second year, when CompRhet coursework is fresh in the mind. Other students prefer the end of the third year after all coursework, including minor coursework, is complete, so that they can move directly into the dissertation without having to return to the classroom.

Portfolio Contents

  1. 3-page introductory essay to be written as the last step in submitting the portfolio, discussing:
    • Your strengths, weaknesses, and progress through the program, reviewing teaching, writing, research
    • Important themes cutting across contents of the portfolio
    •  Future directions and professional aims
  2. 1-2 page statement of your teaching philosophy
  3. Two 4,000-6,000 word (plus bibliographies) take home essays:
    • One written in response to the faculty question (using the Core List)
    • Another essay written in response to a question that each student will work out in consultation with area faculty. The student-question essay must be broadly enough focused as to situate the problems and issues it raises in the field; it is to be more comprehensive than the student's dissertation project. This essay will be based on the individual student's list of 40 readings. Students must identify the faculty question they will answer and negotiate the question of their own no later than 6 months in advance of turning in their essays. Students must secure final approval of their own question and accompanying reading list no later than 3 months before submission of the portfolio.

Reading Lists

    Core list of titles and scholars reflecting the history and breadth of the field. List will be common to all students in the program and provided by the faculty

Preparing Your Portfolio

By the end of your first semester you should be thinking about your portfolio, evaluating possible topics and arguments for your writing and questions, and identifying selections for your reading lists. It is never too early to begin actively organizing in your own mind the trends, debates, historical time lines, etc. that make up CompRhet. A successful portfolio requires you not only to display knowledge of particular texts but also to marshal groups of texts to advance sophisticated arguments or positions. You must read actively and critically. Your mentor is a good person to converse with about titles you are reading or issues or questions whose patterns you can discern in the literature. You will also want to touch base with your other professors to discuss works they are most familiar with. Keeping up with journals in the field can show you how scholarship is used to address issues and controversies. Be thorough. It always pays off.

Oral Examination

Normally, the oral examination is administered by all members of the CompRhet faculty. You must receive at least a marginal pass on your portfolio before proceeding to the oral examination. If you receive a marginal pass on the portfolio, you must receive at least a grade of pass in the oral in order to pass the overall exam (i.e., two marginal passes equal a failure).

The oral will be a discussion of your portfolio, in which you will elaborate upon and defend your written work in response to faculty questions. You will be invited first to introduce your portfolio by recounting its development. Then the faculty takes up further questioning.It is your responsibility to arrange the date and time of the oral according to everyone’s availability and to schedule a meeting room with the program assistant in the Graduate Division. To enjoy the salary benefits that accompany dissertator status, it is necessary to schedule the oral prior to the official start of the semester in which you desire that status.

Failure to pass the exam by August or January before your seventh semester will be grounds for academic probation. If necessary, you have one additional semester to retake the exam and clear the probation.

Faculty Prelim Question

Articulate your research interests in relation to the core list. Approaching the list as a reflection of/on the field of composition and rhetoric, how does your scholarship build on, speak to, diverge from, or bypass the conversations represented by these works? You might consider which conversations most resonate with your research interests and why, identify and synthesize themes that undergird your own interests, or identify lacunae (either in the list or in the field) that call your work into being. Be sure to account, at least partially, for both those aspects of the field with which you identify and those you turn away from.




Admission to Candidacy

This is a formal step in the graduate degree process and must be completed by the end of your sixth semester. Admission to candidacy occurs when you have successfully completed:

• All major coursework
• Both foreign language and tool requirements, and
• The prelims portfolio requirement

If you have not completed your minor, you must also declare one and have it approved by signature of the grad advisor. ABD [all but dissertation] status, which brings you a raise in your TA stipend, requires paperwork. Keep in good contact with the Graduate Division during this phase. Students not admitted to candidacy by the end of their 6th semester will be placed on probation.

Dissertator Status

While you are writing your dissertation, you need to be continually enrolled in English 990 (Dissertation Research). If you do not sign up for these credits each semester by the registration deadline, you will face a stiff financial penalty when you try to re-enroll. You must always be enrolled during the semester in which you plan to defend your dissertation– even if that means the summer. Stay in good contact with the Graduate Office about these enrollment procedures.


Within six months after you have finished course work, you will be expected to have completed a draft of your dissertation proposal and defend it at a conference with your five-member dissertation committee (see more below). Proposals generally range from 12-30 pages plus a bibliography. Your dissertation director will be your main guide in formulating a dissertation project and drafting a proposal. You must arrange the proposal defense by contacting committee members and finding a two-hour time period when all can meet. You also need to secure a meeting room and contact the Graduate Office Coordinator in advance to prepare the necessary paper work, which you should bring with you to the defense. Following a successful defense, the dissertation committee will sign their approval of the proposal and you can put in on file in the Graduate Division.

The quality of your dissertation project–along with the quality of your teaching record–is perhaps the most important factor in how you will fare on the job market. The best projects are those that are sensitive to their moment in the field, ones that proceed from a knowledge of the past, a sense of the significance of the present, and a vision of the future direction of the field. While our individual life circumstances often draw us to particular kinds of projects, dissertations should have a public significance within the field of CompRhet and be approached with that significance in mind. Thinking about the parts of the field with which you most want to affiliate–the conversations you want to be in, the audiences you seek, the kinds of things you want to be reading and doing–all should figure into the search for a dissertation question. Dissertations also need a realistic scope: you should be able to complete your thesis in a year or two. It should also employ methods with which you have had some earlier preparation and, ideally, experience.

Dissertation Committee

Your dissertation committee will consist of a minimum of 5 faculty members (at least three from Composition and Rhetoric) and at least one from outside the discipline of English/Composition and Rhetoric. Four of the five members must be from the UW-Madison campus.

You will need to work out with your director a procedure for sharing your work with the wider dissertation committee. Your director needs to be the first pair of eyes and may approve drafts of chapters to be circulated among other faculty members. Some directors and students prefer that an entire draft be completed before circulating it to other readers. In other cases, all committee members play ongoing and active consulting roles. It is up to you to reach an understanding with your director and committee members about their roles.


It is the custom of this area to hold the dissertation defense only after a draft of the thesis is finished. It is your responsibility, in consultation with your director, to schedule a time and place for the defense according to everyone’s availability. As a courtesy, all dissertation committee members should have a copy of your dissertation one month prior to the defense. Normally, some revisions are requested as an outcome of the defense.

It is important to be in good communication with the Graduate Division as completion of the dissertation nears, as there are forms to fill out and procedures to follow. Also, be sure you are familiar with Graduate School regulations for formatting and delivering the thesis to the Graduate School. You must make an appointment ahead of time to be “signed off” for your degree.


Because so much research in CompRhet involves observing, interviewing, and sometimes testing human beings, faculty and students alike need to be knowledgeable about guidelines affecting such research. Because of heightened scrutiny of universities that receive federal funding, the University of Wisconsin has developed rather elaborate oversight procedures for anyone doing research involving human subjects. According to university guidelines, students who conduct research in order to fulfill course requirements are not required to seek approval from a Human Subjects Committee (although gaining informed consent is always wise). However, if you ever want to try to publish this research–or think you might–then you must have prior approval. We recommend in most cases, if you are planning research with human subjects as part of your graduate coursework, that you become certified through the tutorial and submit your plans and consent forms to the Review Board. You should allow at least a month for the review.

The Office for Human Research Protections now requests that all investigators at UW-Madison who are conducting research on human subjects have training in the form of an on-line tutorial. The training module takes about 30 minutes to complete.

According to University policies, all projects involving human subjects must be reviewed by a human subjects committee, such as the Social & Behavioral Science IRB in the College of Letters and Science. The IRB meets about once a month and proposals are reviewed as they are received. Approval is granted for one year and then must be renewed annually. Application forms are available online.  Please contact the SBS IRB office at 263-2320 for more information.

Going on the Job Market

The MLA Job List is published in early October and is the start of the “job market season.” When you go on the job market, you will have access, through the Graduate Division, to the MLA on-line job list. Hard copies of the job lists also are available for perusal in the Graduate Division. There is a smaller CCCC job service that is also available to you. Most preliminary interviews for jobs are held at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in late December.

The decision to go on the job market ideally should be made in the spring prior to the job-search season. You should be in good contact with the department’s Placement Coordinator, an individual who is in charge of helping all PhD students in their job search. Beginning sometimes in the previous spring and continuing through the next fall, the Department holds vita-writing workshops, mock interviews, and other informational meetings that you should attend. You will need to compile a dossier, including your vita, writing sample, and letters of recommendation to keep on hand in the Graduate Division. The Graduate Division mails out dossiers when they are requested by schools to which you have applied.

In the year you are looking for a job, you should be prepared to devote a good deal of time between September and February to the search. Letters of application are sent out in October and November, MLA interviews are held in December, and on-campus interviews occur generally in January and February. Your dissertation director is the best guide to the timing of your job search and you should remain in good contact with your director throughout the process. In terms of timing, the further along on your dissertation the better. When there is product, your recommenders are able to write specifically about your project and its progress. You also may be quizzed hard about your project–and when it will be completed–during MLA interviews and need to be able to talk about it lucidly and definitively. And the job search will drain time away from your work on the dissertation. However, it is true that the job market for candidates in rhetoric and composition remains robust, especially in comparison to jobs in literature, and so it is normal to apply for jobs while the dissertation is in progress.