PhD Program in English Language and Literature


The department enrolls an average of ten PhD students each year. Our small size allows us to offer a generous financial support package. We also offer a large and diverse graduate faculty with competence in a wide range of literary, theoretical and cultural fields. Each student chooses a special committee that works closely along side the student to design a course of study within the very broad framework established by the department. The program is extremely flexible in regard to course selection, the design of examinations and the election of minor subjects of concentration outside the department. English PhD students pursuing interdisciplinary research may include on their special committees faculty members from related fields such as comparative literature, medieval studies, Romance studies, German studies, history, classics, women’s studies, linguistics, theatre and performing arts, government, philosophy, and film and video studies.

The PhD candidate is normally expected to complete six or seven one-semester courses for credit in the first year of residence and a total of six or seven more in the second and third years. The program of any doctoral candidate’s formal and informal study, whatever his or her particular interests, should be comprehensive enough to ensure familiarity with:

  • The authors and works that have been the most influential in determining the course of English, American, and related literatures
  • The theory and criticism of literature, and the relations between literature and other disciplines
  • Concerns and tools of literary and cultural history such as textual criticism, study of genre, source, and influence as well as wider issues of cultural production and historical and social contexts that bear on literature

Areas in which students may have major or minor concentrations include African-American literature, American literature to 1865, American literature after 1865, American studies (a joint program with the field of history), colonial and postcolonial literatures, cultural studies, dramatic literature, English poetry, the English Renaissance to 1660, lesbian, bisexual and gay literary studies, literary criticism and theory, the nineteenth century, Old and Middle English, prose fiction, the Restoration and the eighteenth century, the twentieth century, and women's literature.

By the time a doctoral candidate enters the fourth semester of graduate study, the special committee must decide whether he or she is qualified to proceed toward the PhD. Students are required to pass their Advancement to Candidacy Examination before their fourth year of study, prior to the dissertation.

PhD Program specifics can be viewed here:
PhD Timeline
PhD Procedural Guide

Special Committee

Every graduate student selects a special committee of faculty advisors who work intensively with the student in selecting courses and preparing and revising the dissertation. The committee is comprised of at least three Cornell faculty members: a chair, and typically two minor members usually from the English department, but very often representing an interdisciplinary field. The university system of special committees allows students to design their own courses of study within a broad framework established by the department, and it encourages a close working relationship between professors and students, promoting freedom and flexibility in the pursuit of the graduate degree. The special committee for each student guides and supervises all academic work and assesses progress in a series of meetings with the students.


At Cornell, teaching is considered an integral part of training in academia. The field requires a carefully supervised teaching experience of at least one year for every doctoral candidate as part of the program requirements. The Department of English, in conjunction with the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, offers excellent training for beginning teachers and varied and interesting teaching in the university-wide First-Year Writing Program. The courses are writing-intensive and may fall under such general rubrics as “Portraits of the Self,” “American Literature and Culture,” “Shakespeare,” and “Cultural Studies,” among others. A graduate student may also serve as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate lecture course taught by a member of the Department of English faculty.

Language Requirements

Each student and special committee will decide what work in foreign language is most appropriate for a student’s graduate program and scholarly interests. Some students’ doctoral programs require extensive knowledge of a single foreign language and literature; others require reading ability in two or more foreign languages. A student may be asked to demonstrate competence in foreign languages by presenting the undergraduate record, taking additional courses in foreign languages and literature, or translating and discussing documents related to the student’s work. Students are also normally expected to provide evidence of having studied the English language through courses in Old English, the history of the English language, grammatical analysis or the application of linguistic study to metrics or to literary criticism. Several departments at Cornell offer pertinent courses in such subjects as descriptive linguistics, psycholinguistics and the philosophy of language.


All PhD degree candidates are guaranteed five years of funding (including a stipend, a full tuition fellowship and student health insurance):

  • A first-year non-teaching fellowship
  • Two years of teaching assistantships
  • A fourth-year non-teaching fellowship for the dissertation writing year
  • A fifth-year teaching assistantship
  • Summer support for four years, including a first-year summer teaching assistantship, linked to a teachers’ training program at the Knight Institute. Summer residency in Ithaca is required.

Students have also successfully competed for Buttrick-Crippen Fellowship, Society for the Humanities Fellowships, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Shin Yong-Jin Graduate Fellowships, Provost’s Diversity Fellowships, fellowships in recognition of excellence in teaching, and grants from the Graduate School to help with the cost of travel to scholarly conferences and research collections.

Admission & Application Procedures

The application for Fall 2025 admission will open on September 15, 2024 and close at 11:59pm EST on December 1, 2024.

Please do not reach out directly to faculty with inquires, instead email, if you have questions.

Our application process reflects the field’s commitment to considering the whole person and their potential to contribute to our scholarly community.  Applicants will be evaluated on the basis of academic preparation (e.g., performance in relevant courses, completion of substantive, independent research project). An applicant’s critical and creative potential will be considered: applicants should demonstrate interest in extensive research and writing and include a writing sample that reveals a capacity to argue persuasively, demonstrate the ability to synthesize a broad range of materials, as well as offer fresh insights into a problem or text. The committee will also consider whether an applicant demonstrates a commitment to inclusion, equity, and diversity and offers a substantive explanation for why study at Cornell is especially compelling (e.g., a discussion of faculty research and foci). Admissions committees will consider the entire application carefully, including statements and critical writing, as well as transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a resume/cv (if provided). Please view the requirements and procedures listed below, if you are interested in being considered for our PhD in English Language and Literature program.

Eligibility: Applicants must currently have, or expect to have, at least a BA or BS (or the equivalent) in any field before matriculation. International students, please verify degree equivalency here. Applicants are not required to meet a specified GPA minimum.

To Apply: All applications and supplemental materials must be submitted online through the Graduate School application system. While completing your application, you may save and edit your data. Once you click submit, your application will be closed for changes. Please proofread your materials carefully. Once you pay and click submit, you will not be able to make any changes or revisions.

Deadline: December 1st, 11:59pm EST. This deadline is firm. No applications, additional materials, or revisions will be accepted after the deadline.

PhD Program Application Requirements Checklist

  • Academic Statement of Purpose
    Please describe (within 1000 words) in detail the substantive research questions you are interested in pursuing during your graduate studies and why they are significant. Additionally, make sure to include information about any training or research experience that you believe has prepared you for our program. You should also identify specific faculty members whose research interests align with your own specific questions.  Note that the identification of faculty is important; you would be well advised to read selected faculty’s recent scholarship so that you can explain why you wish to study with them. Do not rely on the courses they teach.  Please refrain from contacting individual faculty prior to receiving an offer of admission.
  • Personal Statement
    Please describe (within 1000 words) how your personal background and experiences influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree and the research you wish to conduct.  Explain, for example the meaning and purpose of the PhD in the context of your personal history and future aspirations.  Please note that we will pay additional attention to candidates who identify substantial reasons to obtain a PhD beyond the pursuit of an academic position. Additionally, provide insight into your potential to contribute to a community of inclusion, belonging, and respect where scholars representing diverse backgrounds, perspectives, abilities, and experiences can learn (productively and positively) together.
  • Critical Writing Sample
    Your academic writing sample must be between 3,000 and 7,500 words (12-30 pages), typed and double-spaced. We accept excerpts from longer works, or a combination of shorter works.
  • Three Letters of Recommendation
    We require 3 letters of recommendation.  At the time of application, you will be allowed to enter up to 4 recommenders in the system.  Your application will be considered “Complete” when we have received at least 3 letters of recommendation.  Letters of recommendation are due December 1.

    Please select three people who best know you and your work. Submitting additional letters will not enhance your application. In the recommendation section of the application, you must include the email address of each recommender. After you save the information (and before you pay/submit), the application system will automatically generate a recommendation request email to your recommender with instructions for submitting the letter electronically. If your letters are stored with a credential service such as Interfolio, please use their Online Application Delivery feature and input the email address assigned to your stored document, rather than that of your recommender’s. The electronic files will be attached to your application when they are received and will not require the letter of recommendation cover page.
  • Transcripts
    Scan transcripts from each institution you have attended, or are currently attending, and upload into the academic information section of the application. Be sure to remove your social security number from all documents prior to scanning. Please do not send paper copies of your transcripts. If you are subsequently admitted and accept, the Graduate School will require an official paper transcript from your degree-awarding institution prior to matriculation.
  • English Language Proficiency Requirement
    All applicants must provide proof of English language proficiency. For more information, please view the Graduate School’s English Language Requirement.
  • GRE General Test and GRE Subject Test are NO LONGER REQUIRED, effective starting with the 2019 application
    In March 2019, the faculty of English voted overwhelmingly to eliminate all GRE requirements (both general and subject test) for application to the PhD program in English. GRE scores are not good predictors of success or failure in a PhD program in English, and the uncertain predictive value of the GRE exam is far outweighed by the toll it takes on student diversity. For many applicants the cost of preparing for and taking the exam is prohibitively expensive, and the exam is not globally accessible. Requiring the exam narrows our applicant pool at precisely the moment we should be creating bigger pipelines into higher education. We need the strength of a diverse community in order to pursue the English Department’s larger mission: to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination, and justice.

General Information for All Applicants

Application Fee: Visit the Graduate School for information regarding application fees, payment options, and fee waivers.

Document Identification: Please do not put your social security number on any documents.

Status Inquiries: Once you submit your application, you will receive a confirmation email. You will also be able to check the completion status of your application in your account. If vital sections of your application are missing, we will notify you via email after the Dec. 1 deadline and allow you ample time to provide the missing materials. Please do not inquire about the status of your application.

Credential/Application Assessments: The Admission Review Committee members are unable to review application materials or applicant credentials prior to official application submission. Once the committee has reviewed applications and made admissions decisions, they will not discuss the results or make any recommendations for improving the strength of an applicant’s credentials. Applicants looking for feedback are advised to consult with their undergraduate advisor or someone else who knows them and their work.

Review Process: Application review begins after the submission deadline. Notification of admissions decisions will be made by email by the end of February.

Connecting with Faculty and/or Students: Unfortunately, due to the volume of inquiries we receive, faculty and current students are not available to correspond with potential applicants prior to an offer of admission. Applicants who are offered admission will have the opportunity to meet faculty and students to have their questions answered prior to accepting. Staff and faculty are also not able to pre-assess potential applicant’s work outside of the formal application process. Please email instead, if you have questions.

Visiting: The department does not offer pre-admission visits or interviews. Admitted applicants will be invited to visit the department, attend graduate seminars and meet with faculty and students before making the decision to enroll.

Transfer Credits: Students matriculating with an MA degree may, at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies, receive credit for up to two courses once they begin our program.

For Further Information