Doctoral Program with a Focus on Literary Studies

The Graduate Program in Literary Studies is a doctoral area of focus with a single trajectory towards the PhD. It assumes that every student who enters the program is a candidate for an advanced research degree; as students progress toward the PhD, they also acquire extensive training in varied forms of teaching. Literary Studies is designed to give candidates the skills and the command of materials to do original scholarly work of a high order. With this goal students move through three stages of increasing professional focus. Completing the first stage earns students an MA degree; completing the second allows the student to write a dissertation; and completing the third earns the PhD in English.

*Note: We do not offer a terminal MA degree with a focus on Literary Studies. All incoming students enter into the program at the first stage. Admitted students who already have advanced degrees from other institutions may petition the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) to have select courses count toward their course requirements, but they still enter the program at the first stage.

Stage One | Breadth


The first stage provides a broad background in literatures written in English, including but not limited to those of Britain and the USA, as well as exposure to diverse critical and theoretical orientations and, usually, to the study of the English language or composition theory. For the MA degree en route to the PhD degree, students take a total of ten courses (for a total of 30 credits) in the Department of English and demonstrate competence in one foreign language. To insure breadth of knowledge, the course requirements call for intensive study in different chronological and geographical areas. There is room too for electives within this stage of the program. These requirements must be completed before the beginning of the fifth semester. When the first stage requirements are completed, provided the student meets the program standards for satisfactory progress, he or she will be entitled to move into the second stage of the program.

Stage Two | Specialization


Once this broad foundation has been built, the second, more focused stage allows students to work in an area or areas of specialization, and to begin to create an ongoing research agenda. During the three semesters typically devoted to this stage, students choose three English (Literary Studies)  courses beyond those taken in Stage One. In addition, using the 10-12 credits of minor courses that the Literary Studies PhD requires, students deepen their knowledge and diversify their skills by cross-disciplinary work. Successful completion of this course work, demonstration of competence in either one foreign language at the advanced proficiency level (equivalent to fifth and sixth semester language study) or two languages at the adequate proficiency level (equivalent to third and fourth semesters of language study) is also required. In addition to foreign languages, computational language may count at the adequate proficiency level. American Sign Language may count at either the adequate or advanced levels, depending on the depth of study. Passing a written Preliminary Examination qualifies them to pass to the third stage, the dissertation, the last step before the PhD. Most students during the second and third stages work as Teaching Assistants, gaining substantial guidance and experience as proficient teachers of composition and literature.  In order to take prelims, students must have completed all their courses in Literary Studies (a total of 13 courses) as well as the MA requirement of one foreign language.  If the foreign language for the MA requirements is at the adequate proficiency level, then the second foreign language and the remaining minor course work may be completed in the semester following prelim exams, but students cannot obtain dissertator status, along with the higher TA pay scale, until satisfying all requirements except the dissertation.

Stage Three | Dissertation


In the third and last stage of the Graduate Program, a doctoral candidate writes a dissertation, with faculty guidance, representing original scholarly work of a high order. The dissertation characteristically becomes key to a career as a publishing scholar, just as the doctoral candidate's teaching experience becomes key to ongoing classroom success. When the candidate completes a dissertation to the satisfaction of the faculty committee he or she has chosen to guide the work, this third stage culminates in the award of a PhD degree. The Department offers a job placement service to help graduates begin their professional careers.

Breadth Requirements


The first stage of the program, devoted to breadth, calls for 30 credits of course work beyond the bachelor's degree. At least 16 of these credits toward the Master’s must be earned here in Madison. A student may petition the Director of Graduate Studies to transfer up to 12 credits towards the breadth requirement from graduate work completed elsewhere provided that those graduate courses correspond to the intensity and scope of the seminars offered in our department.

In this first stage, course requirements include:


  1. Four graduate-only courses in literatures in the English Department, each course chosen from a different period or field and distributed so that at least two courses from different areas within Group A and at least two courses from different areas in Group B are taken. No independent study courses may be used toward the M.A. degree.


    Group A

    Group B
    British literature before 1500 British literature 1800-1914
    Brith literature 1500-1660 British literature after 1914
    British literature 1660-1800 American literature before 1914
    American literature before 1800 American literature after 1914


  2. English 800, Critical Methods, taken during the first semester of residence because of its general applicability to all scholarly work in literature.
  3. A course in Composition Theory (700) or Old English (520).
  4. A course that will add to the historical, geographical and/or theoretical breadth of the courses taken for the masters degree
  5. Three additional Literary Studies graduate seminars
  6. One foreign language at either the adequate or advanced level

Satisfactory Progress


First-stage course work must be completed with a cumulative English GPA of 3.5 or better in order to continue in the program. Course grades must include at least one A and no more than two Bs.

The first stage course requirements are to be completed no later than the beginning of the fifth semester. To remain in good standing during the first year, students must complete a minimum of seven courses (with approval by the DGS); eight courses with four each semester is the typical course load for the first year unless a student is teaching. One of these courses could count toward the PhD minor, including internal PhD minors in Composition and Rhetoric, English Language and Linguistics, or Creative Writing. However, this course cannot count as both an elective for the MA course work of 30 credits and toward an internal minor.

Any student whose cumulative GPA in all English courses taken in the first two semesters of the first stage of graduate study is lower than 3.5 will not be allowed to continue into the PhD program. Instead, provided that the student’s GPA is 3.0 or better, the student will be granted a terminal MA on the basis of ten courses plus completion of the foreign language requirement. The student may continue for a third semester to complete the degree requirements, but will not be allowed to hold a TAship. The letter grade requirements of at least one A and no more than two Bs do not apply to terminal MAs.

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.


Foreign Languages


Because the PhD is a research degree, the Department requires that students be competent to do research involving primary and secondary materials in languages other than English.

To complete the first stage of the Program, a student must show competence in one foreign language, either by having had, within the preceding five years, the equivalent of third and fourth-semester reading course in college with grades of B or better, or by passing an examination approved by the English Department.


Further Coursework

In the second stage, all courses in English and all minor courses are elective. Students who completed the first stage at the University of Wisconsin Department of English must take three English Literary Studies courses beyond the MA. Only one independent study course (799) is allowed for use toward Literary Studies requirements. Until the course requirements in English have been completed, in order to be considered a full-time graduate student, a student must take 8-12 credits per semester. However, Teaching Assistants and Project Assistants with 33.33% or higher appointments may take 6 credits per semester, and those at 50% and above may take 4 credits per semester. In the semester in which the English course requirements are being completed, and thereafter, the course load may be reduced. A student who does not find it possible to be full-time must make special arrangements with the DGS to apply the current work to the degree requirements. The Department will strive to be flexible in this regard, in the presence of problems related to health, family, finances, and the like.

The minimum cumulative GPA in English at this stage is 3.5. To count towards fulfilling second-stage requirements, all courses (including those taken in other departments) must be passed with at least a grade of B. If grades fall below these levels, students are considered to be on academic probation.

If a student is on academic probation because of a low GPA, the student must take regular graduate courses to raise his or her GPA, not directed reading courses (799). If a student on probation takes courses outside English to fulfill the minor requirement, those courses must be approved in advance by the Director of Graduate Studies. A student may not take an incomplete in a semester when she or he is already on academic probation.

Minor Courses

To fulfill the minor requirement for Literary Studies, students have three options:

  • An internal minor of 10-12 credits in a Department of English program other than Literary Studies. The minor may be in English Linguistics, Composition & Rhetoric, or Creative Writing, with the conditions of the minor administered by the relevant faculty within that program of the English Department. Students who wish to minor in Creative Writing must apply to be accepted for this minor.
  • An external minor in a single department or program other than English, with the conditions of the minor administered by that department or program.
  • An external minor in more than one department or program other than English, with the conditions of the minor administered by the English Department Graduate Division. For such a distributed minor, the Department requires a statement from the student, subject to the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies, offering a rationale for the selection of courses and their coherence as a group, as well as a list of the course titles, department and number, instructor's name, credit numbers, and semester of the course.

Only one independent study course (no more than 3 credits) is allowed for use toward Minor requirements.

Preliminary Examinations

When all English course requirements and at least one of the foreign language requirements are completed, a student may sit for the Preliminary Examination. No one can sit for an examination with an incomplete still on the record. The MA requirements, which include one foreign language, must be completed before the start of the fifth semester.

The Preliminary Examination takes place during the few weeks before the start of either the fall or the spring semester. The timed exam has two written four-hour parts on successive days, and an optional take-home part the preceding week. The Prelim Exam is followed at a later date by an oral Dissertation Prospectus Conference, the bridge between stages two and three. The Prospectus Conference should be held no later than the eighth week of the semester following the semester in which prelims were completed. For students who pass prelims in August, they would need to schedule prelims before the following March.

Levels of Pass

There are two levels of Pass on Preliminary Examinations, Pass with Distinction and Pass. If the student's performance on the examination falls somewhere in between Pass and Fail—a provisional grade of Marginal—the examining committee will require an oral examination or some other follow-up exercise determined by the examining committee in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, normally within the first two weeks of the semester, to resolve whether to award a Pass or a Fail. A student who fails the Preliminary Examination may retake it only once more, at the next examination period (in January if the initial fail is in August or in August if the initial fail is in January). If the student does not retake the exam after the initial failure or if the student fails the second time, then the student does not continue in the degree program.


The University and the Department require students to keep making adequate progress towards the degree. Therefore a full-time student who fails to satisfy any requirement as indicated above—involving, for example, low GPA, failure to fulfill requirements by deadlines, or extended incompletes—will be placed on Departmental probation. Having more than one incomplete on one's record or failure of the Preliminary Examination also places the student on Departmental probation.

To be removed from probation, a student must fulfill the relevant requirement. A student who has been put on probation for a low GPA, by the end of the probationary semester, but who has no further course requirements, must consult the Director of Graduate Studies. A student may not raise a GPA using independent study courses.

The probationary period begins in the next semester of normal enrollment. A student who remains on Departmental probation for two continuous full semesters of full-time enrollment will be dropped from the Graduate Program.


Dissertation Prospectus Conference


Within six months after passing the written Preliminary Examination, each student must hold a Dissertation Prospectus Conference. This consists of a meeting with the English Department faculty member who has agreed to direct her or his dissertation and two other faculty members who have agreed to serve on the dissertation committee. The fourth committee member need not participate.

At the meeting, the committee and the student discuss a dissertation prospectus prepared by the student and given to the faculty members of the committee at least two weeks in advance. The purpose of this conference is to insure that students move rapidly from the second to the third stage of the program, with the momentum built up from studying for the Preliminary Examination.

The conference centers on a dissertation prospectus detailing a topic and the new dissertator's intentions for treating the topic, so that the conference can guide the student toward a finished, well-conceived proposal and so that the committee members can reach substantial agreement among themselves and with the candidate as to the soundness of the proposed study.

Prospectus conferences normally do not take place during the summer.


Dissertation Proposal


An approved dissertation proposal should follow as soon as possible, no later than a month after the conference. In order to qualify for summer funding, students need to have an approved dissertation proposal by March 1st after August prelims, or by August 1st after January prelims. The student files the dissertation proposal—signed by the professor who has agreed to direct the dissertation and by two other faculty members of the committee—with the Director of Graduate Studies. The dissertation director and at least one of the other faculty members must be in the English Department.

Dissertation Oral Conference


The Dissertation Oral, sometimes called the defense, is a conference with the candidate and the five-member dissertation committee. At least one of these readers must come from a department and discipline other than the English Department. The conference, which typically takes place after a full draft of the dissertation is written and revised (sometimes with a conclusion still be written), will review the aims, method, and the progress of the dissertation, and pose specific questions about the details of its content. The committee will indicate to the Graduate Division that the conference has been held and will briefly state its findings. If the committee is not satisfied, another conference may be scheduled.

For the Dissertation Oral, the candidate must give each member of the committee a readable typescript no less than two weeks before the scheduled conference, and ideally 3 or 4 weeks in advance. Dissertation Orals are typically not scheduled during the summer.

When the dissertation is complete, the final version and an abstract will be submitted to the committee for approval, with the clear understanding that the readers may refuse approval at any time after the Oral has been held. At their discretion, members of the committee may delegate the power of approval to the dissertation director.


Deadline for Completion


By Graduate School regulations, every student must complete the dissertation within five calendar years after the date of passing the Preliminary Examination. 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.