Ph.D. Qualifying Exam


The Ph.D. qualifying exam for students seeking a degree in literature & culture has two main purposes. One is to help students gain mastery of works essential to the German literary and cultural tradition. These are works likely to play an important role throughout the students’ intellectual lives—as scholars, instructors, interlocutors, and peer reviewers. They extend the range of both research and teaching and allow students to take part in a discipline-wide conversation that spans centuries. They are meant to assure breadth of knowledge. The other purpose aims for depth. Ideally, the qualifying exam aids students in identifying questions that lead to research projects, above all their dissertation project. The short reading list that students are asked to assemble mainly serves this end.

Advisory committee

The exam is administered by an advisory committee consisting of at least three members of the graduate faculty, which counsels students about their course of study until they pass the qualifying exam. Students must assemble the committee and designate one member, who must be part of the Department’s core literature and culture faculty, as chair of the committee. They should secure the faculty members’ consent before submitting the composition of the committee to the director of graduate study. (The Graduate Bulletin provides further details about the advisory committee.) Students may change the composition of the advisory committee until 30 days before the first day of their qualifying exam, but not after, by informing the relevant faculty members and the director of graduate study.


Ordinarily, the qualifying exam is taken in the fifth semester of students’ course of study for students entering the program with an M.A. degree. Those entering without an M.A. should take the exam in their seventh semester of study. Students are encouraged to consult with all members of the advisory committee, but they must do so with the chair. Students need not have completed their course work to take the exam.


The body of knowledge to be tested in the exam has two main parts, corresponding to its two purposes. One is a departmental reading list of key works from a wide range of periods and genres. In consultation with the committee, students choose 120 items from this inventory, heeding certain constraints. The other is a list that students themselves draw up, again in consultation with the committee, whose chair must approve it. It should include 20 – 30 items that serve as key markers of a research area leading to work on the dissertation. A month before the exam date, students submit a research statement of about 1,000 words outlining key research questions. The statement is meant to frame the shorter reading list and help the committee pose relevant questions.


The exam’s twin purposes also determine its structure. The exam consists of a written and an oral part. The written part takes place on two days, usually no more than a few days apart. Day 1 addresses the students’ breadth of knowledge of the departmental reading list by asking them to write two essays of no more than 1,200 words each. The first of these will have its focus on works produced before 1900, and the second on works produced after that date. For each essay, students will have a choice of two prompts. They have four hours to complete the two essays. Day 2 focusses on the list devised by students themselves. Here too students write two essays focused on different areas of their field of interest. Because the student list has a narrower focus than the general list, there will not be a choice of prompts for the two essays on Day 2. The same limits on words and time hold as on Day 1.

Within two weeks of passing the written exam, the students and the advisory committee convene for an oral exam of about 90 minutes. Its main purpose is to elaborate and deepen the written responses, which may involve questions and discussions about works not mentioned there. The oral exam usually begins with brief comments on the written exam by students and the examiners, then devotes the bulk of the time to a discussion of the departmental and the student-devised lists, and concludes by considering possible paths leading to a dissertation prospectus. Ordinarily, the committee announces the result of the qualifying exam right after the conclusion of the oral exam.


Within a week of the first (written) part of the exam, the committee informs the student of the results. Should the student have failed either part of the written exam, that part must be retaken, ordinarily within two months, before a new date for the oral exam is scheduled. In the event that a student does not pass the oral exam, the committee and the student confer to decide on further steps. The qualifying exam grade will be either “pass” or “no pass.”


No later than six months after passing the qualifying exam, students must defend their dissertation prospectus. They will be eligible to apply for ABD (“All but dissertation”) status after successfully defending their prospectus and completing their course work.


The chair of the advisory committee writes a summary of the committee’s evaluation of the exam and circulates it to the committee members for their approval. Once approved, the summary is shared with the student and filed in departmental records.