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Program Description

The English and Comparative Literature Department at UNC-Chapel Hill fosters insightful and imaginative thinking, with the goal of producing excellent scholars and teachers. Our department offers a wide-ranging Ph.D. program, engaging in all historical periods and across several key areas of critical study. We also cater to research interests in both literature and film. The graduate program trains students to become specialists in fields of their own making by guiding them through the various stages of the program, and by offering rigorous coaching when they enter the academic job market.

Our renowned faculty work across a range of fields, engaging in interdisciplinary scholarship and showcasing a diverse set of critical approaches within the discipline. They publish widely and make themselves accessible to their students at the same time. Exceptional mentoring is a hallmark of our program. These relationships assure that as students gain historical breadth in their study of literature or film, they also hone the highly-developed skills in scholarship and criticism necessary for innovative work in their chosen specialized fields.

Course of Study

Prospective and current students will find below a detailed breakdown of the course of study for the PhD in English Literature at UNC. Those with further questions should contact the Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Kim Stern (, or the Director of Graduate Admissions, Dr. Taylor Cowdery (

Areas of Scholarly Specialization: PhD students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC specialize in a certain area of research expertise, determined partly by the period of literary history in which the student works (e.g., Renaissance literature, twentieth-century American literature, and so on) and party by the theoretical approach or genre-characteristics of the literature they study (e.g., rhetoric and composition, modern poetry, queer theory, the digital humanities, and so on). Prospective students may want to check the department faculty page (online here) to make sure that there are faculty in the department who specialize in the area of study that they aim to pursue.

Advising Relationships: Students in the PhD program at UNC-Chapel Hill will forge their closest relationships with a faculty advisor (or advisors). Usually, that advisor will serve as the director of the student’s PhD dissertation: she, he, or they will be the primary point of contact for the student, will guide them in the early stages of their research, and will provide written and oral feedback on their dissertation throughout the writing process. In deciding whether or not UNC is right for them, prospective students may want to reach out to individual faculty members specializing in the student’s area to determine whether or not they would be a good fit for a working relationship.

Elements of the Degree: The PhD in English at UNC-Chapel Hill is a roughly 5-year program that involves several stages.

  • Stage One: Students will begin (in years one, two, and part of three) by completing graduate course work. Each student must complete twelve courses, eight of which must be graduate seminars (which require a 20-25 page seminar paper) at a minimum, and four of which may be lower-level graduate courses (which do not necessarily require a 20-25 page paper).
  • Stage Two: After completing coursework, graduate students will study for and pass their PhD Qualifying examinations. In preparation for these exams, the student will develop a reading list in consultation with their committee. The PhD examinations consist of two written tests: A Field Examination and a Focus Examination. The Field Exam is designed to cover breadth, to follow a historical trajectory, and to demonstrate a broad knowledge of field(s) that will be relevant to the student’s future work in the field. The Focus Exam allows students to delve into a particular question or set of questions pertinent to his or her doctoral research. Following the written examinations, graduate students will also take an oral examination designed to test the student’s knowledge of the texts listed on their reading lists.
  • Stage Three: Once the student has passed the fields exam, the student will compose a prospectus (a document that may vary in length, but that is often 10-15 pages) which will outline the student’s proposed dissertation topic. Provided that the prospectus is approved by their dissertation committee (which will be comprised of their advisor and four other faculty members), the student will then write a dissertation. The dissertation may vary in format and length, but it often consists of four chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion. It is usually at least 80,000 words in length and is often longer.
  • Stage Four: Once the dissertation is complete, the student will submit it to their dissertation committee. The committee will then determine whether it meets the standards of the department. If it does, the dissertation will be accepted, and the doctoral degree will be conferred.

Teaching: Graduate students will teach two courses per semester (usually two sections of ENGL 105 or 105i, a writing course, or a section of ENGL 105 and a discussion section for some other course) while they pursue their doctoral degree. Depending upon their educational level (either an undergraduate BA or a graduate MA) at the time of their admission, some students may work in the DLC (or Digital Literacy Lab) for their first year before they begin teaching in the fall of their second year.

Doctoral Funding

All students are fully funded in our program; some with research fellowships, most with teaching fellowships. Typically, graduate students will teach two courses per semester (usually two sections of ENGL 105 or 105i, a writing course, or a section of ENGL 105 and a discussion section for some other course) while they pursue their doctoral degree. Depending upon their educational level (either an undergraduate BA or a graduate MA) at the time of their admission, some students may work in the DLC (or Digital Literacy Lab) for their first year before they begin teaching in the fall of their second year.

Job Placement

Our job placement program provides yet another forum for learning how to hone skills as a scholar with the aid of fellow students and faculty. All graduate students are expected to participate in a professionalization seminar in their first year and in a job-market seminar during the years they are seeking employment, whether in academia or in some other sector. While the majority of our graduates pursue careers in academia, a good number seek other opportunities as well, and the department actively supports them.

Prospective applicants should be aware that the academic job market is very challenging at the present time. This means that any student who aims to pursue a PhD in English Literature, whether at UNC or elsewhere, must be willing to accept the considerable risk, and even the likelihood, that they will not obtain a tenure-track job. That said, many UNC graduates do obtain tenure-track positions, and others have gone on to successful careers as secondary school teachers, non-tenure-track lecturers at universities and colleges, and in other fields (including the non-profit sector, the financial sector, the law, and others). One former student in our program became a business strategist at Google, some have pursued careers in library services, while others have taken teaching positions at local private prep schools. The department does not yet track career outcomes for its graduates, but we are currently in the process of gathering that information.

Admissions Information

Admission to the PhD program at UNC is determined by the GAC (or Graduate Admissions Committee), on which a rotating set of roughly eight or nine English and Comparative Literature faculty members serve each year. All admissions decisions are determined collectively, by the entire committee, and not by individual faculty members.

Please note that it is the policy of the department not to comment upon student candidacies or their application materials before the official review of applications has begun. Information about what a prospective student will need to submit with their application can be found here.

Intellectual and Cultural Community

Our graduate students are also vital to department life, taking leadership roles in our Critical Speaker Series, participating actively in the lectures and seminars held here—and attending the many social events that enhance our intellectual life. Graduate students have multiple opportunities to share their work and refine their professional skills at department colloquia, workshops, and reading groups, including the interdisciplinary medieval and early modern studies colloquium. Chapel Hill is a sunny, beautiful university town, with a very reasonable cost of living and a wealth of libraries, bookstores, historical sites, theaters, music venues, restaurants, and nearby peer institutions. Students here belong to a thriving intellectual community, partly owing to our proximity to the National Humanities Center, North Carolina State University, and Duke University. In addition to the work they do here at UNC, our students regularly perform archival work, attend conferences and symposia, and collaborate with students at these neighboring institutions. Faculty and graduate students in our department also work frequently with our colleagues at King’s College, London, with whom UNC has an official partnership. Graduate study at UNC thus launches graduate students outward from this idyllic Southern setting, positioning them to reach past our borders, producing an expertise defined both locally and globally.