Qualifying Examinations (for those entering the program prior to September 2015)

General Framework:

Once you have finished your course work for the PhD, you will move on to a series of qualifying exams, normally taken in the second year. (NOTE: ALL STUDENTS ARE REQUIRED TO COMPLETE THEIR COURSE WORK BEFORE TAKING THE QUALIFYING EXAMS.) Preparation for the qualifying exams may be used either to fill a gap in knowledge or to consolidate a secondary strength outside the area of the dissertation. Qualifying exams prepare the candidate for teaching, not only in his/her area of specialization, but as broadly as possible, especially for the survey courses that most faculty are required to teach at some point in their careers. For candidates not planning to enter the academy as teachers and researchers, the exams offer invaluable practice in the arts of acquiring a large and complex body of knowledge, synthesizing of information, communicating that information, and managing time.

In May of the PhD candidate’s first year of study, he/she will declare a secondary field and a primary field of interest. These fields must be taken from the following thirteen areas:

Old and Middle English Language and Literature;
English Drama to the Restoration;
Renaissance Non-Dramatic Literature;
Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature;
Nineteenth-Century British Literature;
Twentieth-Century British and Irish Literature;
American Literature;
Canadian Literature;
Postcolonial Literature;
Literary Criticism and Theory;
Women’s Literature and Gender Studies;
Textual Studies*;
Cultural Studies.

* Please note that Textual Studies may only be chosen as a secondary field.

Download the list of 2016-17 Qualifying Examination Committees. PDF download

All qualifying exams are four hours in length. Exams are normally written on computers, although candidates are allowed to write by hand, should they choose. Faculty proctors will oversee the examination, and will gather up all exams at the end of the exam period.

Each examination is drawn up, graded, and examined orally (where applicable) by an Examining Committee of three faculty members (with the exception of the nineteenth-century, which usually has 4), one of whom is designated the chair and through whom all inquiries should be directed. The general/secondary reading lists for each of these fields is available from the Graduate Assistant. Candidates are also permitted to see select previous exams in order to get a clearer sense of what is usually required. These exams can be viewed in the Graduate Assistant’s office.


The qualifying examinations have three main parts:
  • Secondary Field examination (written only)
  • Primary Field examination (written exam followed by an oral exam approximately one week later)
  • Field Study (written document followed by formal oral consultation [not a defense] with Examining Committee)
The examinations will be held at stated periods in September (for the Secondary Field), January (for the Primary Field), and May (for the Field Study; the written document for the Field Study is due 1 May, and the formal consultation will follow shortly afterward). Candidates who defer an exam will be required to take it at the next sitting. Deferrals will be granted only on compelling medical or compassionate grounds (and with supporting documentation, where applicable). Requests for deferrals should be made to the Chair of Graduate Studies in English.

A student must undertake the written secondary, written primary and oral primary examinations, and the field study not later than May of the second year in the program, except in cases of deferrals on medical or compassionate grounds.

Descriptions of Exams:

1. Secondary Field Examination:
In May of the candidate’s first year of the program, all qualifying students will meet with their Examining Committee to discuss the format of the September exam and to clarify any matters pertaining to the writing of the exam. Candidates will obtain a reading list for the chosen secondary field from the Graduate Assistant (UC 180), and draw up their individual lists upon which they may be examined.

Each candidate will then forward this list to the examining committee by 1 June for approval. Approval or minor suggestions for revision will be provided in writing.

In September of the second year, all students will write the qualifying exam for the secondary field. Exams will be graded by the Examination Committee for each area, and the mark will be conveyed to the student. The exams are graded on the basis of “Pass,” “Fail,” or “Pass with Distinction,” which is what will be recorded on the transcript.

2. Primary Field Examination:
Once the doctoral candidate has passed the Secondary Field Examination, he/she will move on to the Primary Field examination. The Primary Field examination will test the candidate’s broad knowledge in the field in which his or her thesis research is to take place; it will indicate that s/he is “qualified” to write the dissertation. As with the Secondary Field examination, candidates will obtain a general reading list for their chosen primary field from the Graduate Assistant. The reading list will serve as the base upon which the student will develop his/her final list for the exam. Students are encouraged to review each list to determine how their final list is to be compiled. Expansion and fine-tuning of the Primary Field reading list must be done in consultation with the members of the Examining Committee for that area, and when the Committee has given final approval to that list, its Chair will forward it to the Chair of Graduate Studies in English for the approval of the Committee on Graduate Studies. Students should communicate their expanded lists to the relevant examining committees by 1 November (if writing in January), 1 March (if writing in May) or 1 July (if writing in September). Earlier submissions are encouraged. Templates are available from the Graduate Assistant.

The written Primary Field examination will be followed approximately one week later by an oral examination, lasting one to two hours. Like the written exam, the oral exam will test the candidate's broad knowledge of his or her chosen Primary Field. Questions (to be based on both the general reading list and the expanded reading list) might invite a candidate to elaborate on his or her written answers, and might also test a candidate's knowledge of texts that she or he chose not to write about in the written Primary Field exam. All three of these exams--the written Secondary Field, the written Primary Field, and the oral Primary Field--are graded "Pass," "Fail" or "Distinction" on the transcript. Students must pass both the written and oral Primary Field examinations in order to progress in the program.

Normally, a student who fails the qualifying exam will be re-examined by the same committee.

3. The Field Study:
The Field Study follows on successful completion of the Primary Field examination, and is designed to survey the defined and delimited area of research within the candidate’s Primary Field that is immediately pertinent to the proposed thesis topic. The following outlines the scope, requirements, and timelines for the Field Study:

a) Choosing an Examining Committee: By this point in your progress, it is assumed that you will have secured a faculty member to supervise your dissertation. You may also secure the approval of a faculty member to act as a second reader. Normally, these two faculty members will also serve on your Field Study Examining Committee, along with a third faculty member whom you choose in consultation with your supervisor.

The Examining Committee should be established by 1 March of the second year of your program.

b) Reading List: The Field Study will be based upon a reading list of approximately 25 books or their equivalent. The list, drawn up by the candidate in consultation with the Field Study Examining Committee, should contain a selection of primary and secondary texts (insofar as these categories are applicable), so as to provide representative coverage of the research area immediately pertinent to your proposed thesis topic. Overlap with the Primary Field Reading List (both the basic and the expanded lists) is permissible.

c) Production of Field Study document: When the reading list has been approved, candidates should proceed to write the Field Study. This work should be done in an ongoing discussion with the supervisor-designate and, as necessary, other members of the Field Study Committee. The Field Study document consists of two major components, which will probably be interwoven in the finished draft. Those components are:
  • A survey of the field, conducted in a similar fashion to a review essay in a journal, where the object is to survey some particular area of research to show how it has developed over recent decades, and to signal its current trends. To prepare for this aspect of the Field Study, candidates should identify a few published review essays that are pertinent to their field and study how this genre functions.
  • An analysis of how the candidate’s own research will relate to evolving trends of scholarship in the specific area. The candidate should indicate which key scholars have influenced the proposed thesis project and where key points of difference and innovation, vis-à-vis previous scholarship, lie.
d) Length and Time Requirements: The Field Study document will be approximately 3500-5000 words. It must be submitted by 1 May of the second year of the program to the Examining Committee, via the Graduate Assistant. If the candidate’s progress has been lengthened by medical or compassionate deferrals on earlier exams, the Field Study document will be submitted during the next tri-annual deadline for examination, at the latest.

Failing Results and the Results of Failing

1. Secondary Field Examination
If a student fails the Secondary Field examination at the first sitting, the committee for that examination, through its chair, may request the Committee on Graduate Studies to set an exam at the next sitting for a make-up examination. A student who fails the Secondary Field examination on the second sitting will be required to withdraw from the program.

2. Primary Field Examination
If a student fails the Primary Field examination at the first sitting, either in its written or its oral component, the committee for that examination, through its chair, may request the Committee on Graduate Studies to set an exam at the next sitting. Only the failed portion of the Primary Field exam would be re-taken in that sitting, which is to say, failure on the oral component in the exam will require a retaking of the oral only, not the written. A student who fails the written Primary Field examination on the second sitting will be required to withdraw from the program. A student who fails the oral Primary Field examination on a second sitting will be required to withdraw from the program.

3. Field Study
If a student fails the Field Study, the committee for that examination, through its chair, may request the Committee on Graduate Studies to authorize submission of a revised version by 1 September of that year. A student who fails the Field Study on a second attempt will be required to withdraw from the program.

Note: in all three cases above, the decisions of the examining committee whether or not to request a second sitting and of the Committee on Graduate Studies whether or not to grant such a request are not subject to appeal by the student.