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Department of English Language and Literature

Direct-Admission Ph.D. in English: Composition & Rhetoric

This advanced graduate degree requires a minimum of 66 credit hours post baccalaureate level consisting of a minimum of 54 credit hours of course work and 12 credit hours of dissertation work.

To particularly well-qualified candidates, the Department offers the chance to apply for the Direct-Admission PhD Program. All those applying for direct admission will also be considered for regular admission to the MA program.

Applicants for admission to the PhD program must have completed a minimum of 30 semester hours of upper-division undergraduate courses in English or an appropriate related discipline, with grades indicating ability for successful graduate work. Successful applicants to the doctoral program typically have GRE verbal scores at or above the 75th percentile and an undergraduate GPA of 3.5 or better.

Applicants should follow the procedures noted on the admissions page.

  • a sample of academic writing (approximately 10-20 pages) and

  • a statement of purpose.

Your application is not complete until all materials are received by The Graduate School. Admission decisions are based on all parts of an application, with especially close attention given to writing samples.

Application deadlines are December 15 for those wishing to be considered for fellowships and/or assistantships. For all others, applications must be received by April 15.

Prior to registering for classes each semester, you should make an appointment to talk with an advisor. New PhD students may rely on the graduate student coordinator, or the director of graduate studies, for advisement. Within the first semester, however, students should identify an advisor among faculty members in their major field.

The curriculum for this doctoral program is given below.

  • ENGL 700

  • ENGL 790, 791, 890

  • 6 hours from ENGL 792, 793, or 794

  • 6 hours from the following courses: ENGL 690* (see workshop restrictions below), 792-797 or courses from Speech Communication or another Composition and Rhetoric course with the approval of the student's advisor

  • 6 hours from English and/or American Literature, 700-800 level

  • 9 hours of electives (must be approved by the Composition and Rhetoric committee and may include the 3-hour 691-692 sequence)

  • 9 hours in area of specialization approved by student's doctoral committee

  • Qualifying process for admission to doctoral candidacy

  • 12 hours of ENGL 899 (dissertation writing)

  • Reading knowledge of one language other than English (satisfied by passing a reading exam or a 400-level course in literature, not in translation, with a grade of B or better, or a 500-level course in literature, not in translation, with a grade of C or better). Students may also fulfill a language requirement by passing ENGL 701: Old English or ENGL 701: Beowulf and Old English Heroic Verse with a grade of B or better.

  • Minimum of one year's experience teaching English composition at the school or college level

  • Completion of dissertation and oral dissertation defense

* No more than one workshop course can be counted in the 30 hours of classroom credits; students wishing to emphasize technical writing should consult the graduate director about special conditions.

By the beginning of your third term, you must, in consultation with your advisor, fill out the Ph.D. Program of Study form and submit it to the Director of Graduate Studies; students will bring this form to the meeting to determine qualification for doctoral candidacy that you should schedule with the Graduate Director and major advisor by the start of the third semester. This form must be on file with the Dean of the Graduate School before you will be cleared for graduation. It will also help you and your advisor direct your progress toward the degree. The Program of Study should be amended periodically to reflect actual courses taken by filing the Adjustment form available through the forms library on the Graduate School’s website.

Admission by the Department of English for graduate study does not mean admission as a candidate in the Composition and Rhetoric Ph.D. program.

Students are admitted to doctoral candidacy on the basis of their record and a meeting with the Director of Graduate Studies and the major adviser, to be held at the beginning of the student’s third term. Prior to this meeting, the Graduate Director will review the student's class grades with the expectation of at least a 3.0 GPA over the course of the first year of study. The student will come to the meeting with a completed Program of Study form and an accompanying statement (5-6pp.) detailing progress toward dissertation and degree thus far and plans for future study and research. In the event of an unsuccessful review, the student will be put on probation, not be admitted to candidacy, and be required to maintain a 3.5 GPA for each of the following two semesters. Additionally, field faculty will meet at the end of the probationary student's second year in order to make a recommendation to the Graduate Director about the student’s future in the program. The Graduate Director will factor this recommendation and the student’s GPA into a decision about whether the probationary student should be admitted to candidacy at the end of the second year and allowed to continue in the program.

No later than the end of your second year, you should notify the Graduate Director that you have assembled a doctoral committee of three or four professors in your major field plus an outside reader by obtaining the necessary signatures and filing a Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form available through the forms library on the Graduate School website. In consultation with this committee, you must devise and file with the Graduate Office a reading list and tentative body of course work. This will be the basis of the formal Program of Study, submitted upon admission to candidacy. At any time, you may change the composition of your committee by written notice to the Graduate Director and any members removed from the committee (letters advising members of their removal should be copied to the Graduate Director) and by revising the aforementioned Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form.

Doctoral candidates are required to take written comprehensive exams in both composition and rhetoric and the field of specialization by the fall semester of their third year in the program. Questions for the exams are prepared by members of the doctoral committee (and, in the case of some specialization exams, by appropriate faculty in the specialization area).

Questions are based on reading lists for both the major and minor areas.  The major area reading list in rhetoric and composition is updated regularly and is available from Professor John Muckelbauer (  The minor area list is compiled by the candidate and approved by the doctoral committee.  Minor reading lists must be on file in the Graduate Office at the beginning of the semester in which you take the exams.

This 72-hour take home exam will consist of answers to three questions— two from the major area (one in rhetoric and one in composition) and one from the area of specialization.   Each response should be no longer than ten pages, which is to say that the completed exam should be approximately 30 pages long.

In the semester you plan to take the comprehensive exams, you must sign up with the Graduate Office during the first week of classes. The exams will be offered once in the fall semester and once in the spring semester (usually in the fourth week of each semester and will take place over a weekend—i.e., from Friday at noon until Monday at noon). Students will not be allowed to schedule alternative days or times in which to take the written exams.

To pass the general comprehensive examination, you must receive passing grades on both questions from two of your three readers. To receive a pass with distinction, you must receive grades of pass with distinction on both questions from at least two of your three readers. The same grading standards apply for the response to the specialization exam. Should you fail one part of the exam, you will only have to retake that part; if, however, you fail both parts of the exam, you are required to retake the entire exam. You have two opportunities to pass the written exam, and you must retake any failed portion of the exam within one year.

You must take the oral comprehensive examination within one month of the time you are notified that you have passed the written examination. This exam typically lasts from one to two hours. The oral examiners will be your doctoral committee and one faculty member from another department. The exam covers both your major and your minor fields. If you do not pass the oral examination, you must take it again within a year. You have two opportunities to pass this exam.

Within thirty days of passing the oral exam, doctoral candidates should submit and defend before the full dissertation committee, including the outside reader, a dissertation prospectus laying out the significance, scope, research method, and theoretical approach to the dissertation topic, along with chapter summaries, and a timetable for completion.

Students should obtain the prospectus meeting form from the Graduate English Office, bring it to the prospectus meeting, and obtain the necessary signatures at the end of the meeting. The prospectus defense form together with a brief description of the project should be filed with the Graduate English Office as soon as possible after the meeting.

The purpose of the prospectus defense is to gain advice and approval from your dissertation committee (director, at least two specialists in your research area or areas, and one faculty member from outside the department). Approval of the prospectus constitutes an agreement that committee members will not object to the finished dissertation if it fulfills the basic plan, methods, and theoretical approach outlined initially. Of course, committee members may object to the dissertation on other grounds, such as quality of writing, effectiveness of argument, sufficiency of documentation, and so forth. The director of your dissertation will supervise your 12 hours of ENGL 899.

Your dissertation committee is your doctoral committee in its final form; it includes your dissertation director, at least two specialists in your research area or areas, and one faculty member from an outside department. (English department faculty affiliated with other programs or with joint appointments cannot serve as outside readers). No later than the end of your second year, you should notify the Graduate Director that you have filed a Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form available through the forms library on the Graduate School website. At any time, you may change the composition of your committee by advising the Graduate Director and any members removed from the committee (correspondence advising members of their removal should be copied to the Graduate Director) and by revising the aforementioned Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form. The dissertation must be defended orally before the dissertation committee. At least two weeks before the defense is to be held, you must submit the dissertation in its final form, to the director and the rest of the committee. Be sure to consult the Graduate School for current requirements regarding the format of the dissertation as well as for information about electronic submission of the dissertation to the Graduate School.

Each applicant who applies by the first deadline (January 1) and is admitted to this PhD program will be considered for a Graduate Instructional Assistantship ('GIA') in the first year that provides in-state tuition status, a tuition supplement, and a stipend (currently $14,800). In the first year the student should complete the 18 hours of graduate English course work required to hold a Graduate Teaching Assistantship ('GTA') during the second year of study. Potentially renewable for five consecutive years, the Teaching Assistantship comes with the same benefits as the Direct-Admission student's GIAship.

Students awarded an assistantship by the Department of English are expected to

  • carry no incompletes;

  • earn no more than one grade below B during their academic career;

  • perform assigned duties in a satisfactory manner;

  • maintain a GPA of 3.5; and

  • make steady progress toward the degree.

  • Opportunities to present papers at conferences sponsored by USC graduate student organizations and by affiliated programs such as Women's and Gender Studies.

  • Opportunities for financial support to fund paper presentations at other local, regional, national, or international conferences.

  • Opportunities to teach undergraduate literature and writing courses.

    Eligibility for recognition and awards from The Graduate School (especially for presentations at Graduate Student Day).

  • Opportunities for editorial or other career-advancing internships within the university or outside it.

  • Guidance through the job search by an expert faculty committee, including CV workshops, presentation strategies, and mock interviews.

  • Opportunity to apply for lucrative year-long Bilinski Dissertation Fellowship


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