Ph.D. Requirements

We attempt to make each stage of the progress towards the doctoral degree less an obstacle race, with each stage a step to be got through before the "real work" can begin, than an integral and component part of the making of an intellectual.

Course Requirements

At Duke, the doctoral candidate must be enrolled for six semesters of full tuition. Students must successfully complete eleven graduate courses for credit in their first two years, but they may, of course, take more than the minimum number of courses, either as audits or for credit: typically students take between twelve and fourteen courses in their first three years of study. All courses at the 500-800 levels in both the English department and the Program in Literature may be counted toward the eleven-course requirement and courses in other departments for which students have an intellectual rationale can also be counted. At the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies, up to three courses of the eleven normally required may be remitted for a student who has completed an MA degree at another university.

Foreign Language Requirement

Our program requires foreign language proficiency in at least one language. We ask that the student establish this proficiency within the first two years of the program, either by certifying a grade of "B" or better in a literature course conducted in the language at another college or university within two years of matriculating at Duke, or by successfully completing one of the departmentally approved modes of satisfying the requirement listed in the Handbook.

Areas of Concentration

Beginning in the second year of the program, the student selects one major and two minor fields of concentration that will form the basis of the preliminary examination on a major area of concentration. The student should also select a preliminary examining committee, consisting of a major-field faculty advisor and three other faculty members, by the end of the second year. A summer reading list is due to the Director of Graduate Study before the summer of the student's third year. For a helpful list of questions to ask as you assemble a committee and prepare for exams, please see the Graduate English Association Best Practices Sheet for Exams and Reading lists.  

Portfolio Review

At the end of the Fall semester of the second year, the student selects three papers that they have written for coursework to make a portfolio.  They write a brief reflective statement about the portfolio and select two faculty members—usually one of these the prospective committee chair and one a possible committee member—who, along with the DGS, read the three papers and discuss them with the student before the end of the Spring semester. 

Preliminary Examination

In the spring semester of the third year, the student takes two written examinations, one on the major and one on the two minor areas of concentration. These take the form of two take-home 12 hour exams. The written portion is followed within two weeks by an oral examination on the major as well as the two minor fields. Both the written and the oral examinations are administered by the preliminary examination committee (see above).


In the fourth and fifth years, the student will be expected to complete a book-length thesis of original scholarship. The Ph.D. degree is awarded upon completion and successful defense of the dissertation. The dissertation committee of four members (typically, though not invariably, the four members of the preliminary examining committee) is responsible for assisting as appropriate in the dissertation research and writing, deciding on the acceptability of the work, and administering the Final Doctoral Oral Examination.

Dissertation Chapter Meeting

A chapter consultation for the dissertation is scheduled within six months of the preliminary examination. At this meeting, the student submits a draft of the first chapter and a brief outline of the projected shape of the rest of the dissertation for discussion with the assembled dissertation committee. From this point forward, the director of the dissertation serves as the principal advisor, and the second and third reader are typically also asked to read work in progress. The fourth reader usually reads the dissertation in full only when it has reached its final form.

Time Limits and Deadlines

The dissertation should normally be submitted and accepted within two years of the preliminary examination; extensions may be granted, but only in extraordinary circumstances will they be granted for longer than two further years. Regulations governing details such as the filing of the title by a stipulated deadline, the format, and the deadline for submission of a final version before the scheduled examination, are all set by the Graduate School and should be carefully followed.

The Final Doctoral Oral Examination

All members of the dissertation committee must participate in this examination. Typically, the exam takes two hours, and it may involve questions not only about the content of the dissertation, but on the candidate's major field. Minor changes or corrections on the dissertation may be requested. Three committee members, including the dissertation director, must agree that the candidate will pass.