University of Pittsburgh, Department of English

Don Bialostosky

In lieu of coverage comprehensive exams, the PhD in critical cultural studies (, a rubric that covers our programs in literature and composition and film, requires what we call the PhD Project. Our Web site describes it as follows:

At the end of the third year, students develop a critical project that functions as the comprehensive examination required to achieve doctoral candidacy. This project defines an area of study sufficiently broad in scope to suggest a range of long-term intellectual goals that build on previous coursework and prepare them for more focused dissertation work. For example, past projects have brought together nineteenth-century fiction and feminist nationalism, popular film and the history of sexuality, literacy and literary history, globality and the Irish Renaissance, Indian cinema and global media, composition studies and Foucaultian critique, and Renaissance prose and the history of Protestantism.

The first phase of the project involves a project proposal, a 10-page document with bibliography developed in consultation with a student-formed project committee. Between the end of the third year and the end of the fall term of the fourth year, students write two 30-page project papers that explore some of the problems and issues laid out in the proposal and developed in the course of their research. The final phase of the PhD project is a written and oral exam, which takes place before the second term of the fourth year. The exam phase of the project builds on the proposal, the bibliography, and the project paper.

The overarching goals of the PhD project are to prepare students for the broadly informed yet in-depth inquiry required of a dissertation, and to facilitate participation in the critical intellectual activity of English studies.

The first paper usually surveys the literature relevant to the student’s inquiry; the second constitutes a first intervention into one of the issues discovered there. PhD prospectuses typically follow the semester after the project exams are taken, and project papers often provide the starting places for chapters. We have found that the opportunity to undertake a project attracts to our program students who have begun to formulate a line of inquiry of their own and who welcome the chance to deepen it in conversation with a faculty committee. We have also found that such students often have begun thinking toward and even formally initiating the project before the required semester.

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