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English Dissertation

The main criterion for the dissertation is quality, not quantity. Students are encouraged to plan dissertations that are original, significant, and, ideally, publishable. The number of pages is not crucial; the finished dissertation may fall below the usual 200 pages, but the project should nonetheless require an investigative process equivalent to that required of the dissertation of traditional length. Thus, a self-contained section of a proposed book-length study may satisfy the dissertation requirement.

The dissertation also may consist of a series of essays connected in some meaningful way by author, technique, theme, movement, etc. It may be an edition with appropriate introduction and annotations, a translation, or a collection of translations. Creative writing students will produce an original literary work (novel, short stories, poems, essays), prefaced by a scholarly introduction.


As noted above, not more than one semester after students pass their written comprehensive exam they must write and defend a dissertation prospectus at a formal meeting of their dissertation committee, composed of a director and two other English Department faculty members. At least two of these members should be from their concentration, Creative Writing, Literary History, or Rhetoric & Composition. This means that students will either write the prospectus in the Summer following the third year, defending it in early Fall semester; or write the prospectus in the Fall of the fourth year, defending it in early Spring semester. Shortly after defending the prospectus, students should ask a non-English Department faculty to serve as outside reader for the dissertation. Some students contact this outside faculty member even before the prospectus defense and include him or her in the meeting defending the prospectus.

Note that only Literature and Rhetoric & Composition students write and defend a prospectus. Creative writers will, in most cases, take a post-exam workshop, which they use to organize their previous work and plan new work.

Dissertation and Defense

The bulk of the fourth and fifth years is devoted to writing the dissertation. Enroll in English 8950, Dissertation, to maintain your 12-unit minimum. Students should remain in close contact with their committee, especially their Director, offering drafts of individual chapters as agreed upon by all participants. The department strongly recommends that students submit all chapters individually to each committee member so that the committee may comment on your draft as it takes shape. It is also important that all committee members have the opportunity to see a semi-final draft well before the dissertation defense, so that they can ask for revisions while time remains. As a rule of thumb, students planning for a Spring graduation should give a semi-final draft to the entire committee by early February of the final year, and the committee members should return that draft to the student with any requests for revision they may have. The student—in consultation with the Director—then has two to three weeks to refine the dissertation into a final draft, and then submits it to the committee, at least two weeks before the formal defense of the dissertation, the deadline for which is mid-March. If the student passes the defense, the committee may or may not ask for a few final revisions before the student submits the dissertation to the College (the deadline is in late March or early April).

Exact deadlines for dissertation defense and submission are available each year on the Graduate College. Students should schedule a defense date with their committee well in advance of the deadline. Once students know the defense date, they should download and fill out the “Arrangement for Oral Defense” form; make copies, give one to the Director of Graduate Studies, and send the original to the college. Failure to do this at least two weeks before the defense may result in its cancellation. Also, download, fill out, and bring to the defense the “Report of Oral Defense” form. The committee members must sign the form and indicate whether they found the defense satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

The following guide may help:

  • Third year, Spring or fourth year, Fall —Take qualifying exams
  • Fourth year, Fall or Spring—Prospectus defense
  • Fifth year, early February—Submit “semi-final draft” to dissertation committee to receive comments from committee
  • Fifth year, late February—Resubmit final draft to dissertation committee
  • Fifth year, by mid-March Dissertation defense
  • Fifth year, late March or early April—Submit approved dissertation to the college