Procedural Guide for Doctoral Students in the Department of Literatures in English

PhD Procedural Guide Overview

This guide has been prepared for the use of doctoral students, faculty advisors, and staff in the Department of Literatures in English and should be read in conjunction with the Cornell Graduate School’s Code of Legislation, which sets forth the policies governing advanced degree programs throughout the University. (This guide was last updated in Fall 2021.)

Program Overview

The Department of Literatures in English 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 alongside the student to design a course of study within the very broad framework established by the department. The program is extremely flexible in terms of course selection, the design of examinations, and the election of minor subjects of concentration outside the department.

Whatever their particular interests, students should pursue coursework comprehensive enough to ensure familiarity with many of the authors and works that have been influential in determining the course of literatures written in English; the theory and criticism of literature; the relations between literature and other disciplines; and 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.

Requirements for the receipt of the PhD in English Language and Literature include:

  • Satisfactory completion of 12 required graduate-level courses (plus Colloquium, WRIT 7100, Teaching Internship, and Advanced Pedagogy Workshops) prior to A Exam;
  • Satisfactory completion of at least one year of teaching in the Department;
  • Satisfactory completion of the 2nd Year Review at the start of the third term;
  • Satisfactory completion of the A Exam at the end of the sixth term;
  • Satisfactory Prospectus submission within 4 months from A Exam completion;
  • Satisfactory completion of the B Exam;
  • A minimum of six registered semesters (full-time study), at least two of which must be earned after the A exam;
  • Submission of approved Final Dissertation to the Graduate School;
  • Completion of all degree requirements in no more than 14 registered semesters (7 years) from the time of admission.

Please also reference the PhD Timeline for a view of requirements by year.

To earn the PhD in English Language and Literature, students are expected to achieve these learning outcomes:

  • Demonstrate in-depth knowledge of one major concentration in the field, and competency in one or two other minor areas of concentration, and/or interdisciplinary affiliations;
  • Demonstrate advanced research skills, including broad knowledge of a range of critical and theoretical approaches relevant to their field of research;
  • Make an original and substantial contribution to the field, and produce publishable scholarship in a timely fashion;
  • Communicate research findings effectively in written and spoken presentations;
  • Follow ethical guidelines for work in the field;
  • Demonstrate effective skills in undergraduate teaching and potential for graduate teaching.

The Special Committee

Graduate study at Cornell requires each student to work out a program of study in consultation with a special committee, selected by the student, from the membership of Cornell Graduate Faculty. This procedure, commonly referred to as “the committee system,” takes the place of uniform course requirements and uniform departmental examinations. 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 guides and supervises all academic work and assesses progress at a series of meetings with the student. Such a system places special demands on the energy and adaptability of both faculty and students, and it requires a high degree of initiative and responsibility from each student.


The PhD special committee is comprised of at least three members of the Cornell Graduate Faculty: 1 chairperson (representing the major subject) and 2 minor members (representing the minor subjects). The committee chair must be a general member of the Cornell Graduate Field Faculty in English Language and Literature. Minor members may be chosen from departmental graduate field faculty or graduate field faculty outside the department from interdisciplinary fields/fields of interest. Minor members must hold a PhD in their major field and be a member of a PhD Graduate Field.

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) serves as the student’s main academic advisor and provisional chair during the first semester of residence. A student must select their committee chairperson by March of the first year. One minor committee member must be added by May of the first year, so at least two committee members participate in the 2nd Year Review. Per Graduate School requirements, the full special committee must be in place no later than the end of the third semester of study.

A student may change their special committee through the Graduate School with approval from all members of the newly constituted committee and the Director of Graduate Studies. If a faculty member is removed from the committee, the exiting faculty member does not need to approve the change. If a committee change occurs after a completed A Exam, a student must petition the Graduate School and A Exam results must be approved by any new faculty joining the committee. This petition must also be made at least 3 months in advance of the B Exam.

Fields of Concentration

Students are expected to gain mastery of three fields of study. Such mastery is obtained through individual study, coursework, and advising. Students should see such fields as complementary and supportive of their dissertation research, their areas of teaching interest, and their plans for future scholarship. Students will work closely with their committee members to determine what mastery entails for their specific field; it typically includes extensive knowledge of well-known, influential literary forms and other expressive practices which may include not only literature but also film, television, visual art, performance practices, as well as critical literary and cultural histories, and a working knowledge of relevant theoretical approaches.

Students may choose to change their concentrations at any point in their studies prior to their A exams. It is advised, however, that students take graduate courses with each member of the Special Committee before they ask the faculty member to serve on their committee.

Each field faculty member is approved by the Graduate School to advise on specific concentrations. When a student selects a committee member, they also are required to select a concentration for which the faculty member will serve as advisor. Approved concentrations corresponding to departmental graduate field faculty names, are listed here.


The Cornell Department of Literatures in English strives to be an inclusive and welcoming environment for a diverse community of students, staff, and faculty. It is our collective role to preserve that inclusivity. All of our departmental spaces are professional, and the values of respect, equity, and nondiscrimination should inform our conduct in those spaces. We should all treat each other as having equally valuable contributions to make. If, as a student, you experience any unwelcome behaviors, please tell someone—a departmental administrator, departmental staff member, or graduate school administrator or staff member. We take instances of disrespectful, demeaning, and harassing behavior very seriously.

In addition, faculty/student and advisor/advisee relationships, as you know, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are informal and egalitarian, while others are formal and hierarchical. Some are strictly intellectual, while others become quite personal. There are many different mentoring styles, and what works for one advising pair may not be productive for another. However, while we acknowledge and even honor the various textures and flavors of academic mentorship, the Department of Literatures in English does not condone the abuse of graduate students in any form. You are entitled to professional treatment that respects your autonomy and integrity as students, teachers, and intellectuals. If you have any concerns about your interactions with a faculty advisor, particularly if there is something that is preventing you from full and equal access to your graduate education, you are urged to share those concerns with the Director of Graduate Studies, Department Chair, Graduate Coordinator, Director of Administration, and/or the Senior Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Life in the Graduate School.

A student’s special committee is charged with the following formal responsibilities, guiding a student to meet the requirements and expectations of the PhD degree:

  • Advises student on choice of courses each semester;
  • Conducts the 2nd Year Review;
  • Conducts the A Exam;
  • Advises on prospectus and dissertation;
  • Conducts the B Exam;
  • Approves the final dissertation submission;
  • Recommends the conferral of the degree (this recommendation must be unanimous);
  • Meets with the student at least once each semester (ideally, the entire committee will meet together, but students can also meet with individual members separately; students should initiate these meetings);
  • Writes informed letters of recommendation for a student’s job or post-doc applications;
  • Committee chairs are also required to complete annual Student Progress Reviews for each student they advise.

The Graduate School specifies the student/faculty advising relationship in more detail. Please review these guides for details and additional resources: Advising Guide for Research Students and Graduate School Faculty Guide to Advising Research Degree Students.

Courses and Grades

Since the areas of knowledge and competence that students emphasize will vary according to their programs of study, such areas can be described here only in broad outline. It is assumed that a student and their special committee will fashion a program broad enough to provide adequate and appropriate literary training while sufficiently focused to provide necessary specialization in particular fields of literary study.

Course Requirements

In consultation with their special committee, doctoral students are expected to successfully complete 12 graduate-level courses (designated as 5000+ and at least 6 must be completed for a letter grade), the First-Year Colloquium, the Teaching Internship (required in the first summer), Writing 7100, and non-credit Advanced Pedagogy Workshops (which are organized by the Director of Graduate Student Teaching and are required in year two).

In the first year of study, a PhD candidate is normally expected to complete six graduate-level courses for credit, in addition to the special First-Year Colloquium (organized for entering students in the fall). In the subsequent two years (years two and three), while teaching, students are expected to complete a total of six additional graduate-level courses (one or two per term). Students are generally advised to take no more than two courses for a letter grade each semester. Please reference the PhD Timeline, for complete details on degree program requirements.

All students must be enrolled for a minimum of 12 credits per semester. If credits fall short with required coursework in any given semester, the Graduate School will enroll students in the Graduate Student Research “course” for the remaining credits so full-time status is achieved.

Additional courses devoted to the study of foreign languages or the English language may also be required (in addition to the 12 required courses mentioned above). The number and choice of these languages depends on each student’s area(s) of specialization. A minimal expectation for a PhD program would be either a “translating” knowledge of two appropriate languages or a much fuller “literary” knowledge of one; some special committees, however, demand more than this minimum. The student should reach agreement with the special committee, as early as possible, on any course of formal or informal study that seems necessary, and the means of demonstrating competence in the appropriate languages. These requirements should be met by the time of the A-Exam.

Students matriculating with an MA degree may (at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies) receive credit for up to two courses, which would then slightly reduce their total course requirements.

Course Selection

Graduate students may enroll in and receive graduate credit for courses designated as level 5000 and up, depending on their relevance to the students’ needs and special interests. Courses at the 6000-level, designed primarily for graduate students, aim to provide advanced coverage of significant periods, figures, genres, and theoretical issues; 7000-level courses are intensive seminars intended to serve as paradigms of scholarly research or specialized study. ENGL 7940: Directed Study, and ENGL 7950: Group Study, give students the opportunity to enroll for more informal work in areas and on problems of special interest to them. If you are interested in arranging a Directed/Group Study, please discuss this with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). You will need DGS approval, if you wish for a course to count toward your degree. Prior to each semester, the department issues a revised semester-list of course offerings and descriptions.

Undergraduate (3000/4000 level) courses do not fulfill required PhD degree requirements. If there are no graduate-level courses available in the desired focus area and there are undergraduate course offerings, please consult the Director of Graduate Studies. The student may be allowed (with DGS and instructor permission) to enroll in a graduate-level group study and complete graduate-level work for credit. If permitted, the student should work with the home department to properly enroll and work with the faculty member to develop a revised syllabus. The graduate-level syllabus must include a separate section identifying additional graduate-level reading, assignments, and meetings with the faculty to transform the course into an adequate graduate-level designation. This is true for Directed Studies, Group Studies, as well as undergraduate courses with a supplemental 5000+ number. The new graduate-level syllabus should be provided to the Graduate Coordinator to keep on record.

In addition to required coursework and with faculty permission, students may take undergraduate-level courses or audit (non-graded) graduate-level courses. Neither of these course options count toward PhD course requirements, even though these courses will appear on transcripts. As a rule, graduate credit is also not awarded for courses devoted principally to the acquisition of a foreign language, unless that course is offered in the Department of Literatures in English at the 6000-level or above.


Most graduate courses may be taken either for a letter grade or S/U (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory). Courses taken for a letter grade normally require extensive written work—e.g., a long-term paper, or a series of shorter papers. Courses taken for S/U may require oral presentations and/or written work.

With the consent of instructor(s) (and in consultation with the committee/DGS), the student may change their grading options at any time before the established University deadline. After this date, changes can only be made by special petition to the Graduate School and are discouraged/only considered in cases of extenuating circumstances. An instructor may permit a student to audit a course, but audited courses don’t count toward program requirements. Grades given to graduate students in the department will be interpreted as follows:

A+, A :  Distinguished
A- :  Commendable
B+ :  Satisfactory
B, B- :  Borderline
C+, C, and below :  Unsatisfactory

If a student is unable to complete all the work for a course before the end of the semester in which it is offered, they may request a grade of Incomplete (INC) from the instructor. Graduate School policy mandates that all incompletes be made up within one year of the end of the semester during which the course was taken, otherwise it will become a permanent part of the transcript and the course will need to be re-taken in order for it to count.

A student must satisfactorily complete coursework in a timely manner in order to remain in good academic standing (defined below), and be eligible for continued funding.

  • By March 1st of the first year, all PhD students are expected to have earned at least one letter grade and have no more than one outstanding incomplete grade (INC).
  • By November 1 of the second year, PhD students are expected to have completed their 2nd Year Review.
  • By March 1st of the second year, PhD students are expected to have earned at least three letter grades, and have no more than two outstanding incomplete grades (INCs).
  • By March 1st of the third year, PhD students are expected to have no more than two outstanding courses (of their required twelve) and be on track to successfully complete them prior to the A exam at the end of that term.
  • Prior to the A exam, all course requirements must be satisfied; those courses with grades of INC/NGR (if needed to fulfill coursework requirements) must also be remedied.
  • At the end of the spring term in the third year, the A exam must be successfully completed; fourth year funding will not be granted if this milestone is not met.

If a student fails to meet any of these requirements, the student will not be in good academic standing, and will be ineligible for Department and Graduate School funding the following year. Some deadlines may be slightly extended in the event of extenuating circumstances (such as student illness or family emergency). Even though there may be some flexibility, the Graduate School will not distribute fourth-year fellowship funding unless the A exam is successfully completed. 

Students receiving financial aid: please note that federal regulations require Cornell University to apply standards of Satisfactory Academic Progress for financial aid eligibility. Please review this policy for details on minimum GPA and other requirements.

Exams and Milestones

PhD students are encouraged to review the PhD Timeline, for additional details on PhD exams and milestones. Please note that it is the student’s responsibility to officially schedule their A and B Exams with the Graduate School at least 7 days prior to each exam date. Students are also responsible for initiating exam results forms within 3 days of their exam. Committee approvals for departmental requirements (2nd Year Review and Prospectus document) should be submitted to the Graduate Field Coordinator along with chairperson approval.

2nd Year Review

The Second-Year Review takes place prior to or early in the fall semester of the student’s second year of the PhD program. This review is intended to enable students to plan for their second-year of coursework and begin focusing on the topics, approaches, and areas of research that will eventually form the bases of their A exams. The review takes place in a meeting with the student and committee members, ideally, in the week prior to the start of classes in order to confer about fall courses, but within six weeks of the start of the semester, at the latest. The review takes place in the third term as a precondition for registering for the fourth term of classes/teaching.

Before the review: 

  • All students must meet with the special committee chair at the end of their first year. Students should prepare and send a copy of their long list to their committee chair in advance of this meeting. They can use this meeting to discuss gaps in their past reading and the shape of their developing interests. They should discuss fall course selections. The chair may suggest a list of 5-10 texts to read over the summer. 
  • At least two weeks before the review, students should submit a seminar paper, completed during their first year of coursework, to their full committee. Students should also prepare a brief statement of research interests and proposed areas of future study as well as a summary of their foreign language ability. This statement is delivered orally at the outset of the meeting. One purpose of the statement is to situate the writing sample in the context of their wider research interests. The writing sample and this introductory statement provide a springboard to a collaborative discussion of the student’s progress, future research, and necessary language requirements.
  • By the time of the review, students must submit all outstanding work for any incompletes.

After the review:

  • The committee chair should email the Graduate Coordinator after the Second-Year Review meeting to indicate that the student has fulfilled this program requirement and specify what the language requirement will be.

A candidate who does not complete the 2nd Year Review procedure or who decides for other reasons to leave the graduate program after one or two years may be able to obtain an MA degree by writing a Master’s thesis and satisfactorily completing an appropriate program of study. Please consult the DGS/GFA, if needed.

Admission to Candidacy Examination (A Exam)

This examination has both oral and written components and serves the two functions of consolidating the student’s knowledge in major and minor fields and preparing them to write a dissertation. Graduate School regulations require that students complete the A Exam before the beginning of their seventh semester. Since the Graduate School will NOT award fourth-year fellowship funding if an A Exam is not successfully completed, the department highly encourages students to complete their A exam at the end of their third year.

Students should consult with their committee members and meet with the committee as a whole to discuss topics, bibliographies, and the format of the examination by the end of the fourth semester. All required coursework must be completed (and grades submitted by the instructor) before the A examination can take place.

The written portions consist of three separate responses to questions formulated by committee members in consultation with the student, at least two of which entail broad surveys of and engagements with issues in the major and minor fields. The written responses need be no more than 4,000 words each and need not be polished essays. The special committee members, in consultation with the student, agree beforehand on the form and length of each written response. The committee may specify a composition time of a few hours, a full day, or up to ten days of work on an individual response. The normal assumption is that shorter time limits are most appropriate for this examination.

The oral portion, which must take place no more than two weeks after all three written answers have been given to the committee, is normally about two hours in length, and must be formally scheduled at the Graduate School at least seven days in advance. In addition to discussing the written responses, the committee and the student use the oral exam to look towards the dissertation, exploring ways to proceed with research and writing, and establishing a framework for the writing and submission of a prospectus. Students should expect to receive oral feedback on their A Exam during this discussion portion of the exam. Although written feedback may be provided by some faculty members after the exam, written feedback is not required nor is it typical practice. Students are encouraged to take thorough notes at the exam as well as meet with the committee chair within a week of the oral exam to review suggestions raised during the exam.

For more information on the A Exam, including sample exam formats, the “Hey It’s Your A” document, and details about officially scheduling your exam with the Graduate School, visit A Exam: Overview and Required Forms on our Canvas site.

Upon passing the A Exam, a doctoral candidate will be awarded an MA degree. If a student fails the A Exam, three months must elapse before a second attempt is made. A student who does not pass the A Exam may be awarded the MA on completion of a thesis of 35 pages or more, and an oral examination by the student’s Special Committee. For more information, consult the Director of Graduate Studies.


After completing the A Exam, the student is required to prepare a dissertation prospectus of 10-15 pages in length. Within 4 months of completing the A Exam, and in no case later than the end of the seventh semester, candidates present a draft of their prospectus to their special committee. Candidates submit the draft at least two weeks before meeting with the committee to discuss it.

A form signed by all committee members indicating their approval of the final prospectus, along with a copy of the prospectus itself, should be submitted to the Graduate Field Coordinator by the end of the seventh semester. The plans set forth in the prospectus may be modified as the candidate's research and writing proceed; however, significant changes of focus and structure should be approved by the committee.

A Prospectus and Dissertation Strategies workshop course (ENGL 7920) is routinely offered each fall semester to assist students with the preparation of a prospectus. Students in the workshop will typically be in their seventh semester in the program, but students ready to begin writing at an earlier stage in the program also are encouraged to enroll.

Dissertation Research and Writing

A candidate who has passed the A Exam is expected to concentrate on a major piece of independent research. If a student’s interests have changed in such a way that to no longer coincide with those of the members of the special committee, they may add a member to the committee to direct the dissertation or else petition the General Committee of the Graduate School for permission to reconstitute the committee. The department also encourages dissertation students to participate in dissertation-writing groups and workshops.

It is ultimately the candidate’s responsibility to complete a dissertation satisfactory to all members of the committee; and to this end they should consult regularly with them – in particular the chair – to discuss progress. The candidate should plan to devote from one to two years to the dissertation, typically the fourth and fifth years.

Final Examination (B Exam)

The B Exam is an oral examination on the general subject that usually includes detailed discussion of the dissertation itself, together with suggestions for revision. Two terms of residence at Cornell are required after the A Exam before the candidate may sit for the final B Examination. A completed draft of the dissertation must be submitted to all members of the special committee sixty days in advance of the exam to allow adequate time for reading. The candidate also should allow adequate time for possible revision before the relevant Graduate School filing deadline. The B Exam must be formally scheduled with the Graduate School at least seven days in advance and is conducted by the candidate’s special committee. The committee may request changes in the draft before approving a final version to be filed with the Graduate School. Students have sixty days after the B Exam to file with the Graduate School the final approved draft of the dissertation. After that date, a late filing fee will be incurred.

Filing the Dissertation

When approved by the special committee, the dissertation must be formatted in accordance with Graduate School specifications. Full details concerning dissertation form and deadlines may be found in the Thesis and Dissertation section of the Graduate School’s website. The degree requirements are not complete until the dissertation has been filed with the Graduate School and approved by the student’s committee.

Evaluation of Student Progress

Graduate Admissions and Review Committee (GARC)

GARC consists of five or more members of the Graduate Field Faculty in English Language and Literature, including the Director of Graduate Studies. Its chief responsibilities include the admission of applicants to the PhD program, and the annual review and adjudication of cases in which students are failing to make satisfactory progress through the program. The Director of Graduate Studies, who chairs the committee and represents the long-range interests of the graduate programs, is responsible for the day-to- day operation of the Office of Graduate Studies in Literatures in English and acts as an advisor to students and is the provisional chair for entering students. Every fall, PhD students are provided with a status report from GARC detailing their progress in the program and suggestions for returning to good academic standing, if there are any concerns.

Student Progress Review (SPR)

Students are required to complete the Student Progress Review (SPR) process in March/April of each year. The SPR process supports regular communication including written feedback between a student and their committee, requiring research degree students and their special committee to have at least one formal conversation each year about academic progress, accomplishments and future plans. Students complete a form describing milestones completed, accomplishments, and challenges, as well as set goals. The special committee chair responds in writing and indicates whether the student’s progress is excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement, or is unsatisfactory. Feedback that is documented on the SPR will be made available to the student, the student’s special committee chair, and the DGS/GFA of the student’s field.


Upon admission, each PhD student is awarded a five-year financial support package (including a stipend, full tuition fellowship, and student health insurance), which is guaranteed provided the student remains in good academic standing and performs satisfactorily in any assistantship capacity. Support is typically as follows:

Year One:  Sage Fellowship (or equivalent) to support coursework.

Summer, Year One:  Stipend for participation in the required Knight Institute teacher-training program. Residence in Ithaca is required.

Year Two: Teaching Assistantships

Year Three: Teaching Assistantships

Year Four: Sage Fellowship (or equivalent) after the student has completed the A-Exam, to support the writing of a dissertation prospectus and initial research/drafting of the dissertation.

Year Five: Teaching Assistantships

Summers, Years Two - Five: Sage Fellowship (or equivalent) for four summers. Students must submit an academic plan to the Graduate School and enroll for each summer term to qualify.

Notes: Some variations on this funding schedule are possible; however, it is a clear expectation of the program that the first year and the fourth years will be spent on fellowship.

All PhD students are eligible for six semesters of Teaching Assistantships during the five-year program, except for students who hold other external or internal fellowships. In such cases, the additional fellowship support replaces the Teaching Assistantship option for the semester in which the fellowship is awarded. For all PhD students, teaching assistantships beyond the fifth year may be available by application if opportunities are available, but are not guaranteed.

PhD students who secure other external or internal fellowships (e.g., Ford, Mellon, Provost's Diversity, etc.) may be required to defer the use of their Sage Fellowship (or equivalent) to later semesters. PhD students who receive three-year fellowships will have their support packages revised on a case-by-case basis. This may allow multi-year fellowship holders to gain the year of teaching experience required for the degree, as well as an additional year of teaching. External or internal fellowships of less than three years duration do not extend the guaranteed Sage Fellowship and TA-ship eligibility described here. See the Registration and Degree Requirements section for information regarding funding and leaves of absence.

External Fellowship Application Requirement

The Graduate School requires all PhD students to apply for external funding by the end of the 4th year. Students should be advised that many of the full-year doctoral fellowships that are available have application deadlines one year prior to the fellowship period, so students should be prepared to submit their fellowship applications at the beginning of year 4. In order to properly prepare, students should meet with their committee chair in advance, to discuss the application process and to identify appropriate fellowships. A list of fellowships and sample applications are available in canvas under the Funding Resources specific to PhD students section. Our PhD students have successfully secured multi-year and single-year Ford Fellowships and Mellon Fellowships.

Additional Funding Opportunities

The Graduate School is pleased to provide PhD students the opportunity to travel to enhance their scholarship. Eligible students are encouraged to apply for grant funding related to professional conferences, research travel, or summer foreign language education. Research and Travel Grants are also available through the Einaudi Center for International Research.

Department of Literatures in English students have successfully competed for these Cornell funding opportunities: Buttrick-Crippen Fellowship, Society for the Humanities Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Shin Yong-Jin Graduate Fellowships, Provost’s Diversity Fellowships, Digital Humanities fellowships, Einaudi Center funding, Rural Humanities Practicum, awards 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.

Employment Limit Policy

Because earning a graduate degree involves a significant time commitment, Cornell limits the amount of employment a student may hold while in a full-time registered status (during fall, spring, and summer). Students are considered full-time if they are registered, enrolled in courses, or are working on their thesis or dissertation.  Additional information can be found here. University-imposed employment limits are as follows: 

  • 20 hours per week: The total employment limit for all full-time students. This includes the combined assistantship, hourly student appointments, and/or outside employment per week. This is also the maximum employment allowed by law for most international students on F1 or J1 visas.
  • up to 8 additional hours/week: The limit for students with fellowship support: no more than eight hours per week on additional assistantships, readerships, hourly student appointments, and/or outside employment. 
  • up to 5 additional hours/week: The limit for students with standard teaching assistantships (defined as 15 hours/week): no more than five hours of additional assistantships, readerships, hourly student appointments, and/or outside employment.  

Teaching Assistantships, Readerships, and Lectureships

Teaching is considered an integral part of training for the profession. The Field requires a carefully supervised teaching assistantship (TA) experience (in the capacity of a graduate student instructor or graduate teaching assistant) of at least one year for every doctoral candidate as part of the training for the degree. PhD students typically serve as graduate student instructors for three years.

In addition to TA opportunities, supplementary readership opportunities may be available. Readers assist faculty members with grading papers and/or leading discussion sections for undergraduate lecture courses. These are part-time paid commitments and are not available as a primary means of graduate student support.

PhD students in their fifth or sixth year (at the time of application) may consider applying for the Martino Lectureship (if available). This is a paid teaching position that requires the student to complete their B exam and terminate their registered student status prior to the appointment date. Lecturers may not hold any student fellowships or any student employment positions simultaneously with the lectureship appointment. In all lectureship cases, dissertations must be filed by the end of the first term of lectureship or before.

Please consult the Teaching Handbook for Graduate Student Instructors, Lecturers, Teaching Assistants, and Readers in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University for complete details on applying for teaching, readerships, or the Martino Lectureship.

Registration and Degree Requirements

In addition to coursework, milestone, and teaching requirements outlined in the department’s PhD Timeline, degree candidates must satisfy all requirements specified by the Graduate School’s Code of Legislation. Relief from these requirements must be sought by petitioning the Graduate School. Petition requests require endorsement from special committee members and the DGS. Here are a few highlights to be aware of:

  • A student must complete a minimum of six semesters of registration at Cornell (full-time study) in order to fulfill PhD degree requirements. At least two of these terms must be earned after the A Exam.
  • A student must attempt the A Exam by the end of the sixth term, since seventh year fellowship funding hinges on successful A Exam completion.
  • Candidates must complete all degree requirements and submit the final dissertation within seven years (fourteen registered semesters) of entering the PhD program. Continuing beyond seven years requires a petition to the Graduate School. Use of Sage Fellowship funding (or equivalent) beyond the sixth year is prohibited.

In practice, eight semesters and four summers are the minimum required for completion of the PhD degree. The PhD period of study is typically continuous, although it is possible to obtain a temporary leave of absence for non-academic or health related reasons (see below).  Students who need to pursue their studies away from Cornell (and have funding to support this) may apply for study in absentia (see below).

In Absentia Status (registered student status)

If a PhD student decides to study outside of Ithaca (at a location greater than 100 miles away), while remaining a full-time, registered student, they must apply for In Absentia status. For departmental funding purposes, one year registered In Absentia will count as a year in the student’s program and funding package. Students will be responsible for a tuition charge of $200/term while In Absentia. Students will not be eligible for Teaching Assistantships while holding this status, however 4th year Sage and Summer Fellowships would be available, if eligibility requirements are met. Students are limited to a total of 20 hours of combined assistantship, hourly student appointments, and/or outside employment per week while In Absentia.

Leaves of Absences (non-registered student status)

Personal Leave: A student who takes a Leave of Absence (LOA) for personal reasons relinquishes access to campus facilities and services that normally accompany student status. For the purposes of determining future department funding eligibility, the funding clock will pause for one year and start again the following year whether or not the student returns to registered status. Student health insurance is available, but students must pay their own premiums while on leave. When considering an LOA, students are strongly advised to speak with their committee chair, Director of Graduate Studies, and the Graduate Program Coordinator for funding determination and guidance.

Maternity and Paternity Options: Cornell University graduate and professional students are eligible for parental accommodation to help balance the competing demands of academic and family life. Accommodation options vary with the student’s funding and degree program.

Health Leave: A student who takes a Health Leave of Absence (HLOA) relinquishes access to campus facilities and services that normally accompany student status. Returning from HLOA within 4 years guarantees that a student will receive the remaining financial support from the original offer of admission. Student health insurance is available for purchase while on HLOA and students may petition the department for support with Student Health Insurance premiums. When considering an HLOA, students are required to speak with Gannett Health Services, but are also encouraged to speak with the Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Life at the Graduate School.

In all Leave of Absence situations, library privileges are possible with payment of fees by registering with the library directly and submitting the Library Privileges Application.

Students who are not American citizens or permanent residents and hold a nonimmigrant visa, must contact a representative in International Services before requesting a leave of absence. International students should contact the Graduate Student Services Office and International Services for information on maintaining visa eligibility for re-entry.

Graduate Student Committees and Organizations

Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA): brings together Cornell’s community of graduate and professional students to address non-academic issues of common concern. Drawing upon the strengths of its diverse community, the GPSA is responsible for setting and distributing the graduate student activity fee and representatives to University committees. The GPSA is composed of delegates from each graduate field and the professional schools and nineteen voting members, elected from the larger body of field representatives.

Graduate Policy and Curriculum Committee (GPCC): consists of four elected representatives (3 PhD students and 1 MFA student) who represent the interests of the student body regarding graduate policy and graduate curriculum in the Department of Literatures in English. Representatives are expected to meet at least twice per semester with the Director of Graduate Studies. This committee provides a formal mechanism for the exchange of ideas between faculty and students. The Committee’s principal responsibility is to transmit to the Literatures in English Graduate Faculty its advice on matters of policy affecting the graduate programs within the Field in order to improve the graduate student experience.

English Graduate Student Organization (EGSO): fosters PhD and MFA student life and culture by striving to create community, to plan and implement programming for academic and professional development, and to establish unity and cohesion among the English Department’s graduate student body. Elections are held each spring. EGSO also offers a graduate mentoring program to foster connections between incoming and current graduate students. This helps first years navigate student and social life in department, the graduate school, and the larger Ithaca community. Mentors and mentees connect prior to orientation day and meet formally and informally over the course of their first year. The program organizes lunches and other social events to welcome new students to Cornell and cultivate relationships within the department.

Reading Groups and Extracurricular Activities: The concept of “residence” comprehends more than attending seminars and writing papers. An important part of one’s education comes from informal contacts and extracurricular discussions. Every year there are several social gatherings, formal and informal, sponsored by the department. The department also encourages attendance at public lectures, readings, and conferences, and participation in reading groups and independent study groups with or without a faculty advisor. Graduate students can organize lectures, conferences, readings, workshops and other events on their own. Funds for this purpose are typically available from a variety of sources.

Informal reading groups--some established gatherings and others that form from year to year--focus on such topics as Queer Theory, U.S. Latino Literature, Marxist criticism, and Victorian Literature. Conferences largely organized by graduate students also provide a chance for graduate work to reach a wide audience of the Cornell community. Organizations such as the Renaissance Colloquium, The Lounge Hour Reading Series, Literatures in English Department Roundtable, Quodlibet (a forum for work in Medieval Studies), and the Visiting Writers Series organized by the Creative Writing program bring scholars and writers to Cornell for readings, talks, and seminars. Find current offerings here.          

Departmental Resources

Graduate School Resources

The Office of Academic and Student Affairs works with graduate faculty and graduate students on academic policy and programs, academic integrity and misconduct, responsible conduct of research, petitions requesting exceptions to graduate school policy as outlines in the Graduate Faculty’s Code of Legislation, and academic progress and students status.

The Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement (OISE) supports an inclusive and welcoming environment for all graduate and postdoctoral scholars, but especially for those from marginalized communities and/or backgrounds historically excluded from and underrepresented in the academy. OISE supports systemic change and promotes a climate of diversity, belonging, equity, engagement, and achievement, which are integral components of graduate and postdoctoral education. OISE supports scholar success through recruitment, diversity fellowships, mentoring, professional, leadership, and community development programming, and ongoing support.

Recognizing that health and academic performance are intimately linked, the Office of Graduate Student Life is a source of information, support, and advocacy that creates a more student-centered graduate student life experience.  In addition to being a first-point of contact for students who are struggling or experiencing any form of distress, the Office of Graduate Student Life serves as a coordinating hub with campus-partners that focus on promoting a healthy and holistic student experience.  More information on available support is available here

Faculty Resources: Office of Faculty Development and Diversity and the Graduate School

General inquiries about registration, enrollment, leaves, exams or other student requirements can be directed to the Student Service Office (

Graduate School Staff Directory

University Resources

The university’s Mental Health at Cornell website offers information and resources to help students get support, practice self-care, help others, and get involved in campus health initiatives. Special tips are provided for graduate and professional students.

Cornell Health supports the health and well-being of graduate students with medical and mental health care and workshops to help busy students thrive. They also offer non-clinical support services, including Student Disability Services and Victim Advocacy.

Mental health care at Cornell Health includes drop-in consultation, workshops, individual counseling, and group counseling (including several groups specifically for graduate students).

Notice & Respond: Friend 2 Friend for Graduate & Professional Students,” helps graduate and professional students learn connect peers in distress with appropriate sources of support and care.

Guidance for faculty, staff, and TAs supporting student mental health can be found here.

Article: J. Posselt: Normalizing Struggle: Dimensions of Faculty Support for Doctoral Students and Implications for Persistence and Well-Being.