Candidacy Examinations

All Ph.D. students must pass three Ph.D. candidacy examinations: two written and one oral.

Written Candidacy Examinations

View the upcoming exam schedule.

The written examinations are open-book, take-home but timed exams, each taking place over a two-day period. Students are expected to demonstrate that they possess an adequate body of information and the ability to make use of standard critical methodologies and techniques. Exams are graded anonymously by a committee of three graduate faculty members. 

The two written examinations are selected from the following fields of study (each area listed below links to the respective Statement of Expectation and Reading List):

  1. Linguistics or philology
  2. Medieval literature
  3. English literature from 1500 to 1600
  4. English literature from 1600 to 1660
  5. British literature from 1660 to 1800
  6. British literature from 1800 to 1900
  7. British literature since 1900
  8. American literature to 1865
  9. American literature since 1865
  10. African-American literature
  11. British and American women’s literature since 1750
  12. Film and literature
  13. Rhetoric
  14. Writing studies
  15. A special field as determined by an examination committee and student in consultation.

Written candidacy examinations are normally offered twice a year: in August and in January. For admission to the examinations, you must:

  • Complete at least 20 of the 30 hours of graduate course work in the doctoral program of study;
  • Pass foreign language requirements

You should apply to the director of graduate studies no later than the second Monday in March for the August examinations and the first Monday in November for the January examinations. 

In preparation for the examinations, you should:

  • Consult the reading lists established for the examinations. A disciplined plan of independent reading guided by the lists is encouraged from early in the program, as soon as your fields of interest are defined;
  • Consult the file of previous candidacy examinations in the reserve area of Founders Memorial Library;
  • Consult with members of your examination committee prior to the examination (you are not obliged to do so if you prefer anonymity).

Oral Candidacy Examination

The oral examination is a defense of the your dissertation proposal, including its relation to the larger body of relevant knowledge in the field.

This exam will be administered by the your dissertation committee. Within six months of the date when you pass the written candidacy exams, you should prepare and defend the dissertation prospectus. The prospectus should consist of an essay that outlines and provides a rationale for your dissertation’s hypothesis, places it in the context of scholarship in the field, explains its anticipated methodology, and provides a tentative outline of the dissertation.


The purpose of the oral examination of the dissertation prospectus is to further your progress toward the dissertation by evaluating your prospectus, asking questions, and making recommendations to sharpen the project. To this end the committee will examine you for a period of one hour and consider the following:

  • The clarity and viability of the hypothesis or set of research questions as suitable for development into a monograph (a 200-page study of a single subject);
  • The quality, scope, and depth of the ideas, questions, and methodologies around which you will develop the project;
  • Your readiness to narrow or enlarge the scope of the project;
  • Your plan for completing the dissertation in a timely fasion.
During the oral defense of the prospectus, you should be prepared to present the rationale for the project; hypothesis and/or research questions, methodology of the study, what has been done on the subject, and the place of the proposed research project in the scholarly conversation.

Contact us

Northern Illinois University
Department of English
Reavis Hall, Room 215
DeKalb, IL 60115

815-753-0611
815-753-0606 (Fax)