Course Work

CLS graduate students take between 15 and 18 graduate courses of which at least 6 are in the “home department.” All CLS graduate students, regardless of “home department” take the CLS theory sequence (410, 411, 412) in their first year.  Each course will be broadly based on the examination list for a specific area of critical and/or literary theory.  The remaining 6-9 courses can be taken in CLS, the “home department,” or any other graduate program. Students admitted through a “Cluster Initiative” have to take 3 courses in the cluster.

Students can apply for a credit transfer of up to 3 courses at the time they apply or during their first year; all requests will be evaluated by the Graduate Committee. Transfer credits do NOT count towards the Graduate School Residency Requirement of 8 quarters of course work (i.e. two years two summers).

First-year Review

The first-year review is holistic rather than exam-based. Each student will meet with the DGS and at least two other members of the core faculty to discuss a dossier that will include:

1) evaluations from faculty who have taught the student the current academic year

2) a paper the student has written for a course

3) a statement from the student



First Exam

CLS graduate students take a written and oral theory exam in September of the second year.  Students prepare for the exam through the theory course sequence (410,411,412).

There are nine examination lists, most of which have 25 items:

1)    Aesthetic and critical theory

2)    Decolonial and postcolonial theory

3)    Gender and sexuality studies

4)    Nationalism and transnationalism

5)    Phenomenology, structuralism, and deconstruction

6)    Poetics

7)    Psychoanalysis

8)    Rhetoric, philology, and linguistics

9)    Visual culture, sound studies, and media

Some lists include suggestions for further reading. The lists are not mutually exclusive and some items may appear on multiple lists.

Students chose two of these lists on which to be examined, typically selecting 20 of the 25 items on a given list. (Please check each specific list for any explanatory headnotes). Students are free to choose or not to choose lists corresponding to the topics covered in CLS 410-412 in a given year.

First-year Exam Schedule

In the spring quarter of their first year, students will chose their two lists and establish their examination committee. The committee will be composed of three faculty members: one for each of the lists as well as the Director of Graduate Studies or Program Director. Students choose two faculty with whom they wish to work, one for each list. Before the end of the spring quarter of the first year, as part of the first-year review, the two exam lists and these two examiners should be identified and approved by the Director of Graduate Studies. Students should meet with both examiners to discuss which items from their respective lists might be cut, receive suggestions for secondary readings, and so on.

The two written exams will be given in the Fall of the student’s second year, before the start of classes if possible. These are take-home exams, with students given three days for the two. For example, for questions delivered to students on a Monday morning, exams must be returned by noon on Thursday. Each answer should be approximately 10 double-spaced pages.

The oral component will follow as soon thereafter as scheduling allows. The student will meet with the members of the exam committee, collectively, to discuss the written portion of the exam.

Home Department/Qualifying Exam

All students take an exam in their “home department.” Students need to consult with the DGS of their “home department” about the scope and structure of the exam.


Third Exam

The third exam is in the form of a public presentation of a paper. In their third year students present in a public forum a research paper that contains a distinctly comparative dimension. The paper should thus concern itself with literature in more than one literary-cultural tradition or with the relation of literature to another medium, mode of art, or scholarly discipline.


Language Requirement

CLS graduates students have to show proficiency in two languages other than their native language.  A primary foreign language requires two levels of examination (reading and writing; advanced reading in no-longer-spoken languages); this requirement is normally met through graduate level course work. A secondary language requires only a single level of examination; this requirement is met through a reading exam, administered by CLS, and taken not later than the end of the fourth year.

Prospectus and Dissertation

Before qualifying to write their dissertation, students are expected to develop a dissertation proposal of about 8-10 pages. This proposal serves as the basis for the student’s prospectus, in which both the structure and the general argument of the dissertation are made apparent. The prospectus is usually around 12-15 pages, along with a detailed bibliography, and it should be completed during the fall quarter of the student’s fourth year. It is submitted to the graduate committee in CLS for review and approval.

Upon completion of the dissertation, students defend their work in a public forum.

Progress Towards the Degree

YEAR 1: Students take 3 courses each quarter, including the required theory sequence (COMP LIT 410, 411, 412). They are encouraged to start taking courses in their home department as well as literature courses in CLS. The First-Year review is conducted in the late spring quarter of the first year. The summer between first and second year is used to prepare for the Theory Exam; administered in September of the second year.

YEAR 2: Written and oral components of the Theory Exam should be started before classes start in the fall. Students start TA'ing and hence take only 2 courses each quarter, in their home department, CLS, or other graduate programs. They prepare for the home department exam and, if possible, take it by the end of the year.

YEAR 3: Students complete their coursework and continue to TA. They take their home department exam no later than the winter quarter; they also give a public presentation of a comparative paper. By the end of the year (or before the beginning of the Fall quarter of the fourth year) they submit an 8-10 page draft prospectus to their advisor.

Students need to qualify by the end of their third year. In order to qualify, they must have completed their course work, taken the theory exam and the home department exam, and delivered their public presentation.

YEAR 4:  Students either teach or are on fellowship (internal or external). By the end of the fall quarter they should expand the prospectus proposal into a 12-15 page prospectus, along with a detailed bibliography. Upon approval of the prospectus by the CLS graduate committee students start writing their dissertation.  By the end of the year, students should fulfill the language requirement.

YEAR 5: Students either teach or are on fellowship (internal or external). They continue working on their dissertation and defend it.

Note on Registration

Students register for a minimum of 3 and maximum of 4 courses every quarter. 

In years 2 and above, when students typically TA and hence do not take the full load of courses, they register for one unit of COMP_LIT 490 each quarter they teach.

After students have completed their required course work (typically in years 3 and above) they register every quarter for TGS 500 (if funded by the university) or TGS 512 (if not funded by the university), as well as one unit of COMP_LIT 490 for each course they teach.

In order to receive summer support, students need to register for summer quarter.  Student should register for 3 units of CLS 590 until he/she completes 8 quarters.  After 8 quarters, if he/she is still being funded, he/she should register for TGS 500 (1 unit).  If student is no longer receiving summer support, he/ she need not register for summer.


Teaching is an essential element of the education and training experience of PhD students at Northwestern. The Graduate School requires that all PhD students serve in some instructional capacity for at least one academic quarter during their graduate education at Northwestern. This teaching requirement is unique to American higher education, and is an integral aspect of professional development. TGS expects students teaching work comparable to other students within their program, and strives to ensure teaching demands are as similar as possible across academic programs.

There are three basic forms of teaching in which students participate in teaching our undergraduates: assisting with a class taught by a CLS faculty member or faculty from a related department; participating in language instruction (usually but not always the language of the “home department”); teaching a small seminar of one’s own. The mix of teaching depends on a number of factors, most especially each individual student’s evolving academic profile; but it generally includes all three of these forms.

Good Standing and Evaluation

Students’ funding depends on their being in “good academic standing,” as defined by TGS: Students cannot carry more than 3 incompletes at any given quarter and must clear all incompletes before they can advance to candidacy.  They must advance to candidacy no later than the end of their 3rd year.

CLS evaluates students’ progress every year. The theory exam (at the end of the first year), the home department exam (typically in the second year) and the public presentation of a comparative paper (in the third year) are all occasions for evaluating students’ performance. In addition, at the end of their first year students are asked to submit two representative papers to the Graduate Committee; in subsequent years students are required to fill out a progress report (see below) and have it approved and signed by their advisor and/or the DGS.

Progress Report