Qualifying Examination for the Doctoral Degree (“Orals”)

Qualifying Examination for the Doctoral Degree (“Orals”)

Candidates for the Ph.D. must take a qualifying oral examination in the fifth term of study. Orals assess students’ knowledge and understanding of their disciplines. The exam includes topics from areas in which the student has gained some expertise (through course work or teaching) and from areas in which he/she wants to acquire expertise, notably, to think ahead for possible dissertation topics.

The exam will consist of six topics examined for fifteen minutes each for a total length of two hours. Topics must cover three national literatures, several historical periods (at least one modern and one pre-Renaissance topic), and three literary genres (poetry, narrative fiction, drama). These fields and accompanying reading lists will be selected in consultation with the examiners and the director of graduate studies in order to allow the student to demonstrate knowledge and command of a range of topics.

Attendance at Exams

The oral exam is conducted in the presence of several professors (at least two from Comparative Literature), each responsible for one or more questions; the DGS may also attend.  

Scheduling of the Exam

All qualifying exams will typically take place in the first two weeks of December of each academic year and  scheduled by the Graduate Registrar in the late spring or early summer to ensure sufficient time for preparation. Selection of the date and time of the exam will focus on the availability of the examiners and the student. Other schedules are possible in certain circumstances; please consult the DGS about these details.

Preparation of Topics/Lists

Students preparing to take their exams in December should complete the preparation of the six initial lists of proposed topics by April 15. Each list should consist of a mix of primary and secondary works.

Conception and preparation of these lists, as well as the questions about them that will be asked at the exam, should focus on a specific problem or problems for literary study, but should also demonstrate chronological, theoretical and geographical range. One useful measure might be to think of each reading list as the equivalent of a seminar course of assigned readings in terms of depth, range, and volume.

The student will find professors who would agree to examine him/her on each topic, based on a bibliography compiled in advance, prepared by the student and approved and signed by both the professor and the DGS. After obtaining the signature of approval of the individual examining faculty member on each of these lists, copies should be submitted to the department office. They will also be signed by the DGS and kept in the student’s file.

Submission and Distribution of Final Lists Prior to Exam

When each examining faculty member has approved and signed the final list of readings—usually two weeks before the exam date—the student will submit that final list to the department office as above. These lists will be distributed to all three examiners and the DGS, with copies on file for other faculty members who may wish to inspect them. If the student and an examiner subsequently agree to changes in any one of the three lists, a revised list may be submitted, but no such revisions shall be accepted less than two weeks prior to the scheduled date of the exam.

The Exam

The examination will last for two hours, with 15 minutes for each of the prepared topics. Students should come prepared with a brief statement about the proposed area of dissertation research or the questions that might lead to a dissertation: the exam will open with the candidate being asked about the proposed direction for future research. Often, this initial description can help shape the exam itself. Candidates should not only be prepared to demonstrate specialized knowledge of their examination subjects, but also a capacity for conveying this knowledge in accessible terms.


The Graduate School provides departments with the opportunity to indicate that a student has passed the qualifying exam “with distinction” when it deems this to be the case. This commendation is only very rarely extended. The faculty must recommend “distinction” unanimously, and will consider this designation only at its own discretion.

Sample Orals Topics and Lists [PDF]