Why do your PhD in English at Dal?

A PhD in English is an invitation to explore and master an area of academic research and literary, social, and cultural history.

PhD students at Dalhousie are given every opportunity to:

  • present original work in the Department
  • attend national and international conferences
  • publish original essays in academic journals
  • teach undergraduate English courses
  • become involved in ground-breaking research with faculty
  • prepare for an academic career

Applicants to Dalhousie's PhD program are eligible for a Killam scholarship nomination. PhD students are funded by the Department for the first four years of study and are encouraged to apply for external funding every year. By the third year, and after Comprehensive Exams, PhD students are able to teach up to 4 half-credit undergraduate courses of their own.

In the past decade, our students have successfully competed for tenure-track positions at the University of Toronto, University of Victoria, the University of Regina, the University of Ottawa, Carleton University, Algoma University, Ambrose University College, Mount Saint Vincent University, and Wilfred Laurier University. Other recent graduates have contract appointments at Harvard, Dalhousie, Dawson College, Saint Mary’s University, and Universite Sainte Anne, and in private schools across Canada.

Program details

Doctor of Philosophy in English (PhD)

Choosing a thesis supervisor

It is not necessary to secure or approach a supervisor before applying to Dalhousie. PhD applicants, however, should review our faculty profiles to ensure appropriate supervision is available for the proposed project. Many students are attracted to Dalhousie for particular faculty who are specialists in a research area.

PhD candidates are expected to confirm an appropriate, interested, and available supervisor by January of the first year of the program. Once enrolled in the program, PhD candidates are expected to apply for external funding to fund the remainder of their study.

Program structure

The schedules below take the candidate through four years. Some students do not finish within that time. PhD candidates have six years to work on the PhD; extensions for up to three more years may be granted by the Faculty of Graduate Studies if appropriate documentation is submitted. Annual progress reports must be submitted by August 1 every year.  

Year 1

Late August: New students will meet with the Graduate Coordinator to plan their PhD program and select classes, which begin in September. All tutor-markers and teaching assistants will attend a series of seminars on teaching.

October: Students should be preparing applications for SSHRC and Killam doctoral fellowships. The deadline to apply through the Department is in early November.

January 15: ‘Intent to Qualify’ forms must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator.

April: Classes end. By now, students should have found a faculty member to be the supervisor for the qualifying exams to be taken within the next year. In consultation with the supervisor, the student must decide upon a final reading list for the exams. If revisions to the standard lists are made, they must be submitted to the Graduate Committee by April 15. Over the next months, the student reads in preparation for the exams and meets from time to time with the supervisor to discuss progress.

Years 2, 3, and 4

The candidate’s schedule should be worked out in consultation with the supervisory committee, bearing in mind the deadlines laid out in the Graduate Calendar.

Some dates to remember:

  • The qualifying examinations must be taken no later than May of the candidate’s second year of residence.
  • The prospectus for the thesis must be submitted within twelve weeks of the examinations.
  • The supervisor should submit to the Chair of the Department three months ahead of the anticipated date of the oral defence, a list of three potential external examiners with a description of their qualifications to serve. The Chair will then make arrangements for the examination.
  • The candidate must submit a copy of the thesis approved by the internal readers to the Faculty of Graduate Studies no later than four full weeks ahead of the scheduled defence; it must be accompanied by a thesis submission form with the signatures of the supervisory committee and Chair of the Department and follow FGS Thesis Submission guidelines.

Further information:

Degree requirements

Course requirements

PhD students must satisfactorily complete six half-credit graduate seminars: three in the Fall term and three in the Winter term. If a seminar will be offered in the second year that is more closely related to the thesis area, students may defer two courses until the second year (this may, however, interfere with progress in the reading year). There is the possibility of undertaking a half-credit Directed Reading with a faculty member, subject to course selections, faculty availability, and Departmental resources. All graduate students must also complete the non-credit ENGL 8500: Professionalization seminar in the first year of the program.

Academic seminars are chosen in consultation with the Graduate Coordinator, based on student’s research interests and a strong background in all periods and genres of English literature. 

Second language requirement

PhD candidates must demonstrate proficiency in one language other than English. The language used to fulfill this requirement should contribute to the student's studies.  French is routinely accepted; in the case of other languages, students must make a case for the relevance of the language to their studies.  Students can fulfill the second language requirement in several ways. The most common is attaining a grade of C or better in a university-level class or classes approved by the Graduate Co-ordinator. Another is passing a language examination set or approved by the department (such as the French placement exam available on the Dalhousie French department's website). Students who have strong proficiency in a language but without the evidence listed above may try to make a case to the Graduate Committee for exemption from formal testing or class work.


Within four weeks of a student's successful completion of the qualifying examination, the student and supervisor will meet to discuss the student's likely dissertation topic. The Graduate Committee, in consultation with the supervisor and student, will appoint a supervisory committee.

Within twelve weeks of passing the qualifying examinations, the candidate must submit to the Supervisory Committee a prospectus for the thesis. The prospectus should be about 1000-1500 words long.  It should consist of an introduction to the topic and the approach, a general outline of the central issues and methods, and a bibliography of works bearing on the project. The proposal is meant to be exploratory and open to reasonable change in focus, rather than comprehensive and complete in its analysis.

The candidate must then submit the prospectus to the Graduate Committee, approved and signed by the supervisor and supervisory committee. The Graduate Committee will then consider the prospectus for further approval, and return the prospectus to the student within three weeks. The Graduate Committee's written comments will be made available to the supervisor and the student at that time.

Once the Graduate Committee has approved the prospectus, the supervisory committee will meet with the student to agree upon a procedure by which the student will submit the thesis to members of the committee. Some supervisory committees may wish to see each chapter as it is written, while others may wish to wait for a completed draft, or they may come to some other mutually satisfactory arrangement – but the committee must agree on how to proceed.

In the term following the approval of their thesis proposals, PhD candidates will be expected to present their projects to the Department at large at one of the Friday afternoon talks. In general, these candidates will present on the same day; each presentation should be approximately twenty minutes in length and will be followed by a question and answer period.



The thesis itself should be between 75,000 and 100,000 words, excluding notes, bibliography, and most appendices. It should make a significant contribution to knowledge; the regulations of the Graduate Faculty require that it “must display original scholarship expressed in satisfactory literary form consistent with the discipline concerned and be of such value as to merit publication.” Once it has been revised to meet the requirements of the supervisor, it must be submitted to the second and third readers within the Department, and then revised to meet their requirements. It is the responsibility of the doctoral candidate to:

• Obtain the consent of his/her supervisory committee to begin the search for an external examiner.  The supervisory committee must inform the Chair of their consent to begin the search for an external examiner no later than three months prior the anticipated defense date.

• Deliver one unbound copy of the completed thesis (the External Examiner’s copy), the Ph.D. Thesis Submission Form, and a c.v. to the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and four additional copies to the Graduate Co-ordinator in the Department no later than one month prior to the defense date.

• Make sure the abstract of the thesis (maximum length of 300 words) is sumitted electronically to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for the thesis defence notice.

The supervisor must approach the Chair of the Department about the defence a minimum of three months in advance, and must suggest possible external examiners. The Chair of the Department contacts and arranges for an external examiner; the Chair’s choice is approved and the external examiner invited by the Faculty of Graduate Studies. The Department requires that the MLA Handbook be used as a guide to presentation of theses; it is the candidate’s responsibility to get the most recent regulations on the format of the thesis from the Office of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and to make sure that the thesis meets the regulations. The candidate must take one unbound copy of the thesis to the Office of the Faculty of Graduate Studies one full month in advance of the scheduled defence so that it can be shipped to the external examiner; it must be accompanied by the thesis submission form with appropriate signatures. At the same time, the candidate must bring four unbound copies of the thesis to the Department of English, to be read by the supervisor, by the second and third readers, by a fourth reader (all internal readers are to be approved by the Graduate Committee), and by the Chair of the Department.


The defence is chaired by a faculty member designated by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and is open to anyone interested. Those entitled to examine the candidate are the external examiner, the supervisor, the second and third readers, all with some expertise in the field of the thesis; the fourth or “departmental” reader, from a field of expertise other than that of the thesis; and the Chair of the Department, whose principal role is to see that there is fair play, and who consequently may choose not to take part in the questioning. The examination normally runs about two hours, and opens with a summary statement of about twenty minutes made by the candidate before questioning begins. After the questioning, the candidate and observers are asked to withdraw, and a decision is immediately reached. Theses may be assessed as “approved” or “not approved.” A thesis can be accepted as is; accepted with specific corrections (within a set time, but not to exceed six months), rejected with permission to submit a revised thesis (within twelve months); or rejected. Candidates should read section 10 (Thesis Regulations) of the Faculty of Graduate Studies Regulations for further information on the thesis and its defence.

The candidate must submit their approved thesis electronically, and deliver hard copy of the signature sheet, to the Office of the Faculty of Graduate Studies in time to meet the deadlines for convocation as spelled out in the Graduate Calendar.

Graduate seminars

PhD candidates must satisfactorily complete six half-year graduate seminars; three in the Fall and three in the Winter plus the professional development class.

  • At least one half seminar, and preferably two halves, must be in the area in which the student will write the thesis.
  • At least one seminar must be in a field unrelated to the thesis area.
  • One half or one full seminar may be taken from another Department, where the student’s thesis plans make such a choice appropriate, with prior approval from the Graduate Committee.
  • One half or one full seminar may be a reading course in the thesis area, if a regular seminar is not being offered, if the student is able to persuade a member of the Department to offer the reading course, and if that faculty member submits a schedule of work to be done and methods of assessment that are approved by the Graduate Committee. (Where the enrolment in a listed graduate seminar is below three non-auditing students, the instructor is entitled by Department regulation to change the seminar into a reading course. The instructor will inform the Graduate Committee of the decision and students may then, but need not, transfer into another seminar.)

If an appropriate seminar in the thesis area is not available until the candidate’s second year, seminars may be spread over two years. At least three full seminars or equivalent from the whole body of graduate seminars, including those done for the MA, must normally be outside the area of concentration of studies.

Seminar Assesment

The possible grades in the Faculty of Graduate Studies are A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, FM (marginal failure), F, incomplete and ill. A minimum of “B-” is required for credit. Dalhousie Graduate Fellowships are contingent upon students maintaining good standing in the program, and good standing is normally interpreted as obtaining credit for all graduate classes (i.e., “B-” or higher). Students are also advised that their overall average is more important than any single standing in a given class. Instructors of the graduate classes provide their students, usually at the beginning of the term, with a clear breakdown of the method of evaluation to be used.

Instructors may have policies regarding extensions or late essays. The issuing of “incomplete” is at the discretion of the instructor. In any case, the Registrar automatically converts all “incomplete” grades to “F” at the end of the month subsequent to that in which the seminar ended. “Ill” grades can only be issued if students provide adequate medical documentation. Passing grades in ancillary courses (by which term is usually meant undergraduate language courses taken at Dalhousie to fulfill the language requirement) include all grades from B- to A+. The grade IP (for in progress) is assigned to the thesis until it is completed.

Professional development

All first year graduate students must complete ENGL 8500, a non-credit seminar focusing on professional development. As well as introducing graduate students to the principles and practices of effective teaching, the professional development seminar offers sessions on public speaking and paper presentation, career options, and on thesis prospectuses and grant proposals. The seminar features a number of guest speakers addressing topics from application letters to careers in publishing.

The pedagogical component, which takes up much of the first term, focuses on training TAs to assist in delivering the Department's first and second-year curriculum. The class offers explicit instruction in teaching writing and teaching literature, concentrating on best practices in evaluating student work and strategies for leading successful tutorials.

PhD students who have completed their qualifying examinations are eligible to teach up to 4 half-credit classes as the primary instructor, schedule and budget permitting.

Transfer from MA to PhD

There is no automatic transfer to the PhD program from the MA program.

Comprehensive Exams

Before beginning thesis work, candidates must pass a set of qualifying examinations, designed to ensure their broad understanding of the field in which they are about to pursue specialized research.

The PhD qualifying examinations are designed to test a candidate’s knowledge of his or her declared area of specialty. The reading that is normally done in preparation for these exams is expected to serve the candidate as a foundation for his or her professional career as both teacher and scholar within this specialty. Such reading should therefore not be treated as preparation merely for writing the dissertation, but as an important step toward gaining a thorough knowledge of the primary materials that are taught and studied in any one of the main specializations currently recognized within the discipline of English.

By January 15, students must submit an “Intent to Qualify” form to the Graduate Co-ordinator specifying the list on which they choose to be examined. By the end of the year of coursework, PhD candidates should seek out a supervisor for the qualifying examinations (this supervisor is normally the same as the supervisor of the thesis).

The Department makes available to candidates standard lists of such primary materials in each specialty. These lists are designed to reflect current thinking in the specialty as to the nature, selection and proportions of these materials. Candidates should use these lists in order to guide their reading in preparation for the exams, with the understanding that the scope of their examinations will be restricted to the materials identified on these lists. Most current lists include on average the equivalent of about 75 full-length items (novels, plays, collections of poetry, prose works, works of criticism, etc.) This figure can vary considerably between specialties, as some fields have traditionally required preparation in a broad array of material, while others have demanded more concentrated study of a smaller number of items. Candidates, in consultation with their supervisors, may revise and “tailor” up to a quarter of the standard list within their declared specialty—once again, with a view not to the dissertation but to their particular professional interests. Any revisions must be formally approved by the supervisor and the Graduate Committee; proposed revisions must be submitted to the Graduate Co-ordinator by April 15 of the first year in the Ph.D. program.

Preparation for the qualifying exams should be conducted as a collaborative effort between the student and his or her supervisor. Students should expect to meet with their supervisor at least once a month during the reading year; some supervisors may recommend more frequent meetings, especially as the exams draw nearer. Students are also encouraged to meet with other members of the examining committee. These meetings are opportunities to measure and plan progress through the reading list, to benefit from the expertise and guidance of faculty members, and to practice the kind of critical discussion expected in the exams themselves. Students and supervisors share the responsibility of developing a productive schedule.

These examinations must be taken no later than May of the second year. They take place over three days. On the first and second days, the candidate writes a three and a half hour examination set by three examiners expert in the field, one being the supervisor. After the second day’s examination, supervisor and second and third examiner evaluate the two scripts and decide (by majority vote) whether the candidate has passed or failed. The supervisor notifies the candidate of the results. If the candidate has failed, she or he may take the examination again within six months. If the candidate has passed, she or he proceeds the next day to the oral examination. The oral portion is approximately two hours long. It is normally chaired by the Graduate Co-ordinator,or a designate. There are four examiners, the three experts in the field and a fourth member of the Department, the list of whom must be approved by the Graduate Committee; the Chair of the examination is also entitled to ask questions. After the examination, the candidate is asked to withdraw, and the examining committee immediately discusses and votes on the performance. Decision is by majority vote of the four examiners, with the Chair of the examination voting only to break a tie. The candidate is immediately informed if the result is pass or fail. If the candidate has failed, he or she may take the oral examination again within six months; a candidate will not be allowed to go on to work on the thesis until the examinations are passed. A second failure in either the written portion of the examination or the oral portion disqualifies the candidate from the program.