Doctor of Philosophy

Dalhousie's Department of English began its PhD program in 1967, and our graduates are now teaching in universities throughout Canada, as well as in England, the United States, South Africa, Morocco, India, Bangladesh, Malawi, Lesotho, Cameroon, and Germany.

Our graduate programs are select: we usually admit about 8-10 MA and 2-3 new PhD students each year. Our seminars are small and collegial, and students preparing for Comprehensive Examinations or writing theses remain in close touch with their supervisors. Because our program is relatively small, potential applicants to the PhD in particular should consider the match between their proposed research and that of faculty members within the Department as well as the adjunct members from neighbouring universities (the University of King’s College as well as Cape Breton, Saint Mary’s, NSCAD, and Mount Saint Vincent Universities) who often serve on Thesis and Examination Committees.

Degree Requirements

Graduate Courses

In the first year of the program, PhD students complete six three-credit hour graduate courses, most often three in the Fall Term and three in the Winter. If there is no course available in the student’s prospective area of specialty, one three-credit hour course may be deferred until the student’s second year.

With prior approval from the Graduate Committee, one three-credit hour course may be taken in Department.

One three-credit hour course may be a Directed Reading in the area of the proposed thesis. Directed Readings are normally permissible only if a relevant course is not available, if a member of the Department or an adjunct agrees to offer the course, and if the Graduate Committee approves the syllabus and its Method of Evaluation.

Course Assessment

The possible grades in the Faculty of Graduate Studies are A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, FM (marginal failure), F, INC (Incomplete), and ILL. A minimum of “B-” is required for credit. Note that Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) Scholarships are contingent upon students maintaining good standing with grades of B- or higher in all courses. At the beginning of term, graduate course instructors are required to provide a clear breakdown of the Method of Evaluation.

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

Graduate Essays

While overall grading strategies and models will vary from course to course, based on type and number of assignments, area, approach, methodology, and so on, the academic paper is a common assignment.  In general, graduate essays are expected to be well situated in terms of research on the topic(s) of the essay, are, of course, fully and properly documented according to an accepted bibliographic style (in most cases, MLA or Chicago citation styles are used), and will be free of typographic and writing errors.

Some general definitions of essay grades are offered below.  Of course, you should check with your specific instructors about their methods of grading and weighting in their courses.

A+            Papers that earn the highest grade are usually somewhat rare; they are original and innovative, and add to the scholarly discussion on the topic(s) at hand.  They also show considerable command of critical and other secondary material.  Depending on the type of assignment, these papers could, with no or minor revisions, be considered publishable in academic journals specific to the field.

A               These essays constitute excellent graduate work.  They are original and strongly written, and show considerable command of critical and other secondary material, but would need significant revision before being considered publishable.

A-             These essays are very good graduate level work, and are well written and researched, offering a good understanding of the primary material and the scholarly discussion thereof.

B+             Essays in the B+ range may be considered good graduate work, but show weaknesses in terms of research, argumentation or writing.

B               These essays are satisfactory graduate work, but with substantial flaws in one or more areas of research, argumentation or writing.  They may indicate difficulty in moving beyond undergraduate-level work.

B-              Essays in this range are minimally passable graduate work, showing considerable weaknesses or errors in research, argumentation, and writing.  These essays demonstrate difficulty in moving beyond undergraduate-level work.


Professional Development

At all levels of the program, PhD students benefit from a series of professional development workshops organized by the Graduate Committee.  Workshop topics may include principles and practices of effective teaching, public speaking and getting published, academic and alternative career options, strategies for timely degree completion, and writing grant proposals.

Developing skills in teaching, presenting, and professional collaboration, our PhD students are eligible to work as Teaching Assistants. Though TAs may take on a variety of tasks, most lead tutorials, grade and comment on student essays, hold individual meetings with students, and sometimes lecture or lead class discussion. Experienced PhD students may be invited to serve as TAs for upper-level courses and, budget and availability permitting, PhD candidates may apply to teach up to four three-credit hour courses.

Comprehensive Examinations

By February 15 of the first year, PhD students must submit the Intent to Qualify form to the Graduate Coordinator specifying the Reading List on which they choose to be examined. By the end of the first-year course work, PhD students should have secured a Comprehensive Examination supervisor (most often the same as the thesis supervisor). Written in May of the PhD student’s second year, the Comprehensive Exams aim to ensure broad understanding of the chosen area of specialty. The Reading Year preceding the Exams thus serves as the foundation for developing expert knowledge within a given speciality and not as preparation for writing the thesis.

The Department makes available Reading Lists of primary (and sometimes also secondary) works in each speciality, and Comprehensive Exams are restricted to the list. Most current Reading Lists include roughly the equivalent of about 75 full-length items (novels, plays, collections of poetry, prose works, works of criticism, etc.) The number can, however, vary among specialities, with some requiring knowledge of a broad array of material and others demanding more concentrated study of a lesser number of items. In consultation with their supervisors, students may revise up to one quarter of the chosen Reading List with a view to broader interests and not specifically to the thesis. Reading List revisions must be formally approved by the supervisor and the Graduate Committee, and proposed revisions must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator by April 15 of the first year of the PhD program.

Preparation for the Comprehensive Exams should be a collaborative effort between the student and the supervisor. Students should expect to meet with their supervisor at least once a month during the reading year, though 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 to benefit from the expertise and guidance of other 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 and workable schedule.

Examinations are normally taken no later than May of the second year of the PhD, and they take place over three days. On the first and second days, the prospective candidate writes a three and a half hour examination set by three examiners expert in the field, one of whom is the supervisor. After the second day’s examination, the Examining Committee considers the two scripts and decides (by majority vote) whether the student has passed or failed. The supervisor notifies the student of the result. In the case of a pass, she or he proceeds the next day to the oral portion. The oral is approximately two hours long, and is chaired by the Graduate Coordinator or designate. There are four examiners, the three experts in the field and a fourth non-specialist member of the Department. There are two rounds of questioning with each of the four examiners permitted a total of twenty minutes on the first round and ten minutes on the second; the Exam Chair is also entitled to ask questions at the end of the second round. The prospective candidate is then asked to withdraw while the Examining Committee discusses and votes on the performance. Decision is by majority vote of the four examiners, with the Chair voting only to break a tie. The student is immediately informed of the result is pass or fail—a pass confers the student with the new title of “PhD candidate.” In the event of a failure, the student may take the Comprehensive Exams again within six months and is not permitted to work on the thesis until the Exams are passed.  Note that a second failure in either the written or the oral portion or the Comprehensive Exams immediately disqualifies the student from the program.

Thesis Prospectus

Within four weeks of successfully completing the Comprehensive Examinations, the candidate and supervisor finalize the thesis topic and the Graduate Committee approves the Second and Third Readers, both with expertise in the research area, who make up the remaining members of the Supervisory Committee.  Within the following eight weeks (twelve weeks after the Comprehensive Exams), candidates submit a 1000 to 1500-word Thesis Prospectus to the Supervisory Committee. The Thesis Prospectus includes an introduction to the topic and a description of the approach, a general outline of the central issues and methods, and a bibliography of relevant works. With the Supervisory Committee’s approval, the Thesis Prospectus is submitted to the Graduate Committee to approve as is or request revision within three weeks. With the Graduate Committee’s final approval, the Supervisory Committee and candidate establish a schedule for writing and protocols for reviewing the thesis; some committees prefer to review each chapter as it is written, for instance, while others wait for a completed draft. Regardless of the procedure, the arrangement must be agreeable to the candidate and the Supervisory Committee.

In the term following Thesis Prospectus approval, candidates normally present their projects to the Department, usually in a panel of two or three twenty-minute presentations followed by a question-and-answer period.


The PhD thesis is about 75,000 to 100,000 words, excluding notes, bibliography, and most appendices, and it should make a significant contribution to knowledge; according to Faculty of Graduate Studies regulations, the PhD thesis “must display original scholarship expressed in satisfactory literary form consistent with the discipline concerned and be of such value as to merit publication.”

No less than three months before the anticipated Thesis Defence date, and with the approval of the Supervisory Committee, the Supervisor advises the Department Chair to begin the search for an External Examiner.  Around the same time, the Graduate Committee appoints the Internal Non-Specialist (or Fourth Reader) who, along with the three members of the Supervisory Committee and the External Examiner, makes up the Examining Committee. The supervisor recommends three potential External Examiners and provides a description of their qualifications to the Department Chair, and the Chair contacts and makes arrangements with the External Examiner, who must then be approved and formally invited by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

Note that it is the candidate’s responsibility to:

•  No less than one month before the Thesis Defence, deliver one unbound copy of the completed thesis (the External Examiner’s copy), the Ph.D. Thesis Submission Form, and the External Examiner’s Curriculum Vitae to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and, if preferable to electronic, four printed copies of the completed thesis to the Department’s Graduate Coordinator for distribution to the remaining members of the Examining Committee.

•  Submit a 300-word thesis abstract to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for the Thesis Defence notice.

•  Follow the MLA Handbook as a guide to documentation and conform to the most recent regulations on thesis formatting (log in to view this SharePoint page) established by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.


Thesis Defence

The defence is chaired by a designate of 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), the Internal Non-Specialist or Fourth Reader (representing a different area of expertise), and the Departmental Representative (normally the Department Chair), whose principal role is to ensure fair play. Beginning with the candidate’s twenty-minute summary statement, the defence normally take about three hours. The statement is followed by two rounds of questioning, allowing a maximum of twenty minutes for each member of the Examining Committee on the first round and ten on the second, at the end of which the Departmental Representative may opt also to ask questions. The candidate and observers are then asked to withdraw while the Examining Committee deliberates. The candidate is informed as soon as a decision is reached as to whether the thesis is accepted as is, accepted with specific corrections (within a set period of time, but not to exceed six months), rejected with permission to submit a revised thesis (within twelve months), or rejected with no option to resubmit.  Candidates should consult Section 10 (Thesis Regulations) of the Faculty of Graduate Studies Regulations for further information on the thesis and its defence.

Successful candidates must submit the approved thesis electronically and deliver a hard copy of the thesis signature page to the Faculty of Graduate Studies in time to meet the deadlines for convocation specified in the important dates.

Second Language Requirement

PhD candidates must have demonstrated proficiency in one language other than English. 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 course or courses approved by the Graduate Coordinator. Another is passing an approved language examination (such as the placement exam offered by Dalhousie’s French Department). Students who command strong proficiency in a second language may also appeal to the Graduate Committee for exemption from formal testing or course work.

Suggested Yearly Schedule

The schedule below covers four years of the PhD program. PhD students are, however, allowed up to six years to complete the degree requirements, and can apply to the Faculty of Graduate Studies for extensions of up to three additional years. Note that Progress Reports must be submitted annually by August 1.  

Year 1

Late August: Incoming students meet with the Graduate Coordinator to select courses. New Teaching Assistants also attend one or two teaching-related workshops.

October:  The Graduate Committee offers a workshop on applying to SSHRC : the deadline for SSHRC applications is normally early November, and all eligible PhD students are required to apply.

January 15: “Intent to Qualify” forms specifying the area of specialty are submitted to the Graduate Coordinator.

April: Students secure a supervisor for the second-year Comprehensive Examinations and decide on a final Reading List. Up to 25% of any official Reading List may be altered, and the revised list submitted for Graduate Committee approval by April 15. Over the following year, the student prepares for the Comprehensive Exams and meets regularly with the Exam Supervisor.

Years 2, 3, and 4

The candidate’s schedule should be worked out in consultation with the Supervisory Committee, bearing in mind the important deadlines (Dal log-in required).

Some dates to remember:

Comprehensive Examinations are taken no later than May of the student’s second year.

The Thesis Prospectus is due to the Graduate Committee within twelve weeks of the Comprehensive Exams.

At least three months in advance of the anticipated Thesis Defence date, the supervisor submits to the Department Chair the names of three potential External Examiners with a description of their qualifications to serve. The Chair then makes arrangements for the Thesis Defence.

The candidate submits to the Faculty of Graduate Studies the thesis approved by the Supervisory Committee no later than one month in advance of the scheduled defence; the approved thesis must be accompanied by the Thesis Submission Form signed by the members of the Supervisory Committee and Department Chair, and submission must follow FGS Thesis Submission guidelines (Dal log-in required).