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How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate in English?

by Elissa Hansen

In 2011, U.S. students who graduated with a doctorate in a humanities discipline spent an average of 9.3 years in graduate school, down from 9.7 years in 2001, according to the National Science Foundation’s “Survey of Earned Doctorates.” While English coursework takes most students about the same amount of time, the vagaries of dissertation research and writing, as well as the demands of teaching, cause significant variation in the time it takes to earn a doctorate in English.

Coursework Phase

In the U.S., the coursework in English doctoral programs generally takes students two to three years. In addition to becoming broadly familiar with English literature and beginning to home in on your research area, you must demonstrate reading knowledge of two foreign languages or advanced knowledge of one. After your first year of study, you’ll be expected to present papers at conferences at least once a year, and you should begin thinking about submitting articles for publication. Such submissions are usually revised seminar papers or versions of dissertation chapters.

Qualifying Exams

After completing their coursework, students must pass their qualifying exams -- sometimes called general, comprehensive or book list exams -- to advance to doctoral candidacy. These consist of a written and an oral exam designed to test your knowledge of the field and to gauge your preparedness to write a dissertation. Students often spend a summer or a term preparing for these exams, working their way through a list of the books they’ll be expected to know well. Some programs have a set list of books for all students, while other programs ask students to develop a list with their adviser and doctoral committee.

Dissertation Phase

Once students become doctoral candidates, they work with their adviser to create a dissertation proposal that their committee will approve. The dissertation must make an original contribution to the existing research in your subfield of English literature, so the first step toward writing it is posing a research question that no one has answered, yet is relevant to the current conversation among other scholars in your subfield. The question must also be complex enough to require a book-length study to address. Refining and answering that question takes years; frequent meetings with your adviser and a strong peer network can help you feel less isolated and keep you on track to finish within the six total years for which most programs fund students.

Speeding Time to Degree

Efficient advising and good funding can help speed your time to degree. If you come in knowing which faculty member you’d like to work with, you can start meeting with him or her to develop your dissertation project ideas earlier than most students do. In terms of funding, although some programs offer a fellowship year that allows English students to focus exclusively on their studies, you’ll spend most of your time in the program working as a teaching or research assistant to earn your stipend. To maximize the time you can dedicate to coursework and research, apply for the internal fellowships that your department and university offer, as well as external fellowships funded by organizations related to your research.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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