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Summary of Requirements

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Course Work

CLS graduate students take between 15 and 18 graduate courses:

*Please note: Students can apply for a credit transfer of up to 3 courses at the time they apply or during their first-year; all requests will be evaluated by the CLS Graduate Committee. Transfer credits do NOT count towards the Graduate School Residency Requirement of 8 quarters of course work (i.e. two years, including summer).

First year Review

The first year review is holistic rather than exam-based. During spring quarter, each student will meet with the DGS and at least two other members of the core faculty to discuss a dossier that will include:

During or after the first year review, the student will choose two lists and faculty examiners for each list for the First Year Theory Exam: First-Year Theory Exam topics list Form

First Year Theory Exam

Students complete the written and oral theory exam in September before the start of the second year. Students prepare for the exam through the theory course sequence (410,411,412).

There are ten examination lists, most of which have 25 items:
Please note: Some lists include suggestions for further reading. The lists are not mutually exclusive and some items may appear on multiple lists.

  1. Aesthetic and critical theory
  2. Decolonial and postcolonial theory
  3. Gender and sexuality studies
  4. Nationalism and transnationalism
  5. Phenomenology, structuralism, and deconstruction
  6. Poetics
  7. Psychoanalysis and Affect Studies
  8. Rhetoric, philology, and linguistics
  9. Visual culture, sound studies, and media
  10. Environmental Thought

Students choose two lists on which to be examined, typically selecting 20 of the 25 items on a given list. CLS allows students to substitute up to seven authors of their own choice, per list. (Please check each specific list for any explanatory headnotes). Students are free to choose or not to choose lists corresponding to the topics covered in CLS 410-412 in a given year.

Theory Exam Schedule

In the spring quarter of the first year (around the time of the first year review), students will choose two lists and establish the examination committee.

The committee will be composed of  two members, one for each of the lists. At least one member of the committee must be on the core faculty of CLS. Often, a faculty member from the home department (preferably also one who is CLS affiliated or core faculty) is an especially appropriate second examiner. Before the end of the spring quarter of the first year, as part of the first year review, the two exam lists and faculty examiners should be identified and approved by the Director of Graduate Studies. Students should meet with both faculty examiners to discuss which items from the respective lists might be removed, receive suggestions for secondary readings, and any other feedback.

The two written exams will be given by the end of August/September, before the start of classes. The student should work with the faculty examiners and CLS program administrator on the exam dates (written and oral).

The written exams are take-home. Students are given three days to submit their answers to the two questions. For example, for questions delivered to students on a Monday morning, exams must be returned by noon on Thursday. Each answer should be approximately 10 double-spaced pages.

The oral component will follow after the written exams are completed and the faculty examiners have enough time to review. The student will meet with the members of the exam committee, collectively, to discuss the written portion of the exam. The exam committee members must write an assessment of the theory exam for the student's benefit. This assessment must be shared with the DGS.

Should a student fail the exam, the student should repeat the exam within three months. A DGS-designated third person must be present during the re-administered exam.

Public Presentation

Following the completion of the qualifying exam in the Winter Quarter of the third year and prior to advancing to candidacy, students will present a public paper related to their proposed dissertation project. This typically takes the form of an abbreviated presentation version of the dissertation prospectus. Students are expected to present in the Spring Quarter of the third year or Fall Quarter of the fourth year.

Qualifying Exam

Qualifying exam no later than Winter Quarter of third year.  During year two, students will select a committee of three members and will develop three distinctive lists in consultation with them; the QE exams consist of a written and oral portion organized using the three lists.  The first list addresses the student's generally constructed teaching field.  The second list addresses the student's specific area of expertise.  The third list addresses the methodology or theoretical framework used by the student to engage with one or two sub-disciplines that are useful to the dissertation topic. More information and instructions for the Qualifying Exam in CLS. 

Language Requirement

CLS graduates should begin to work toward fulfilling the language requirement in their first year by creating a plan in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies. Students have to show proficiency in two languages other than their native language.  A primary foreign language requires two levels of examination (reading and writing; advanced reading is needed for no-longer-spoken languages). This requirement is normally met through graduate level course work or TAship in a language course. A secondary language requires only a single level of examination; this requirement is met through a reading exam, administered by the language department.

Students should fulfill the language requirement by the end of their third year. An exception may be requested if a student requires language training resources beyond those available at Northwestern. The student must (by the third year) request an extension in consultation with the DGS, and complete the examination no later than by the end of the fourth year.

For additional ways to fulfill the language requirement, please consult the Director of Graduate Studies.


Before qualifying to write their dissertation, students are expected to develop a dissertation proposal of about 8-10 pages, in close consultation with a dissertation committee of no less than three faculty members*. The chair of the committee must be CLS core faculty. If a student wishes to name a non-CLS faculty as the chair, they must seek approval from the DGS of CLS; in such cases, often a co-chair arrangement may be advisable.

*Please note, per TGS policy, a minimum of three individuals must serve on the prospectus committee. At least two members of this committee, including the chair, must be members of the Northwestern University Graduate Faculty.

This proposal serves as the basis for the student’s prospectus, in which both the structure and the general argument of the dissertation are made apparent. The prospectus is usually around 12-15 pages, along with a detailed bibliography. Although the CLS program does not formally require the prospectus to be filed until the end of the fourth year (a requirement for satisfactory academic progress), students are strongly encouraged to complete it by the end of the summer of their third year.

The prospectus is submitted to the student's faculty committee for review and approval. The approved prospectus should be sent to the CLS administrator for the student's file.


Upon completion of the dissertation, students present their work to their dissertation committee members.

PhD Completion

Scheduling the final examination (dissertation defense) is the responsibility of the candidate and the members of the committee. The PhD final exam must be approved by a faculty committee. A minimum of three faculty members must serve on the dissertation committee. The chair of the committee must be CLS core faculty. If a student wishes to name a non-CLS faculty as the chair, they must seek approval from the DGS of CLS; in such cases, often a co-chair arrangement may be advisable.

*Please note, per TGS policy, a minimum of three individuals must serve on the dissertation committee. At least two members of this committee, including the chair, must be members of the Northwestern University Graduate Faculty.

Students must file required documents prior to graduation and by the deadlines set by TGS. For deadlines and forms needed, please visit the TGS website on PhD Filing Requirements and Forms.

Progress Towards the Degree

YEAR 1: Students take 3 courses each quarter, including the required theory sequence (COMP LIT 410, 411, 412). Students are encouraged to start taking courses in their home department as well as literature courses in CLS. The first year review is conducted in the late spring quarter of the first year. The summer between first and second year is used to prepare for the written and oral theory exam; administered in September before the start of the second year.

YEAR 2: Written and oral components of the theory exam should be started before classes start in the fall. Students start TA'ing and may only take 2 courses each quarter, in their home department, CLS, or other graduate programs. They prepare for the home department exam and work toward completing the language requirement.

YEAR 3Students complete their coursework and continue to TA. Students take their home department exam (preferably by winter quarter), complete the public presentation and language requirement . By the end of the summer of the third year, students work toward completing the prospectus.

*Students should be admitted to candidacy by the end of the third year. In order to be admitted to candidacy, students must have completed their course work; taken the theory exam and the home department exam, and delivered their public presentation.

YEAR 4Students either TA or are on fellowship (internal or external). By the end of the fall quarter, students should expand the prospectus proposal into a 12-15 page prospectus, along with a detailed bibliography. Upon approval of the prospectus by the student's faculty committee, students start writing their dissertation.

YEAR 5Students either teach or are on fellowship (internal or external). They continue working on their dissertation in preparation to complete their dissertation defense.

Notes on Course Registration


Teaching is an essential element of the education and training of Ph.D. students in CLS. The typical teaching assignment begins in the fall quarter of the student’s second year and extends through the spring quarter of their fourth year. CLS is committed to assigning no more than two quarters of TA-ships per year for a total of six teaching quarters over three years, with the additional provision that the two assignments cannot be concurrent during the same quarter. (Pleas note that teaching assignments and timing can vary if students get internal or external fellowships.) CLS assigns TA-ships at the end of each year with the goal of creating the best teaching portfolio for each student, though given the composite structure of the program, we cannot guarantee teaching assignments in the student’s home department. Students generally TA for language courses or literature/culture lecture courses (GA) or serve as research assistants (RA), though in exceptional cases, advanced students may be allowed to teach a course of their own design. Depending on their area of study, CLS encourages some students to acquire expert training in foreign language pedagogy in their respective home departments focused on basic principles of second language acquisition and language teaching methodology. While it is the responsibility of the professor of instruction to outline expectations and responsibilities for TA and RA appointments, all parties should pay careful attention to TGS “Guidelines and Best Practices for Graduate and Teaching Assistantships." CLS is committed to offering quarterly pedagogical workshops on topics selected based on the needs and interests of current students.

Good Standing and Academic Progress Report Evaluation

Students’ funding depends on being in “good academic standing,” as defined by TGS:  Students cannot carry more than 3 incompletes at any given quarter and must clear all incompletes before they can advance to candidacy. Students must advance to candidacy no later than the end of the third-year.

CLS evaluates student progress every year. The requirements are all occasions for evaluating student performance and standing. Students are asked at the end of each year (in May) to submit an Academic Progress Report which outlines requirements met that year and goals for the upcoming year. Each progress report must be reviewed and signed by the student's advisor (or DGS if an advisor is not established yet).

Guide to Graduate Studies

The CLS Guide to Graduate Studies is an overview of the program requirements and additional information for current graduate students. Please contact the CLS Program Coordinator, Philip Hoskins, if you have any questions or concerns.  

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