Graduate Program Overview

Ph.D. Program in English at Princeton

The aim of the Princeton graduate program in English is to produce well-trained and productive scholars, sympathetic and intelligent critics, and effective and imaginative teachers. The five year Ph.D. program is intense but also supportive. Princeton maintains a feeling of intimacy despite being a high-powered research university; it is large enough to sustain an extremely diverse, cosmopolitan, and lively intellectual community, but small enough so that no one need feel lost in it. Because this is a residential university, whose traditions emphasize teaching as well as research, the faculty is easily accessible to students and concerned about their progress.

Located between New York and Philadelphia, Princeton combines the cohesive identity of a university town, with easy access to the cultural and professional resources of major urban centers.

The faculty of the Department of English is notable for its scholarly reputation, commitment to teaching, and accessibility. We are committed as a department to a diverse range of critical approaches to the discipline.  In addition to offering seminars in every major historical field of concentration, from Medieval to contemporary literatures, we offer a wide range of theoretical specializations in fields such as feminist theory, gender studies, psychoanalysis, Marxism, New Historicism, environmental studies, political and social theory, and cultural studies. Students may take courses as well in cognate departments such as comparative literature, classics, philosophy, linguistics, history and art history.

The university offers programs in creative writing, visual arts, and theater and dance. Although these programs do not have graduate courses, graduate students are welcome to participate when space permits.  The faculty in creative writing is one of the most outstanding in the country, and has included such distinguished figures as Toni Morrison, Tracy K. Smith, Susan Wheeler, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Muldoon, Edmund White, James Richardson, Colson Whitehead, and Chang-rae Lee. (For the current list of creative writing faculty, see the Lewis Center for the Arts website.)

Course of Study

The graduate program in English is a five-year program leading to the Ph.D. Students may not enroll for the Master of Arts degree. During the first two years, students prepare for the General Examination through work in seminars, and directed or independent reading. The third, fourth, and fifth years are devoted to teaching in undergraduate courses, and to the writing of a dissertation.

While programs are flexible, during the first two years graduate students normally take an average of three courses per semester, to complete the required 12 courses by the end of the second year. The comprehensive General Examination is then taken at the beginning of the third year of study.

Students must also demonstrate a reading knowledge of two foreign languages before the completion of the General Examination. The languages normally recommended are Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish and/or Italian, but other languages relevant to the student's program of study may be substituted with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies.

Course Requirements

Graduate students are required to take a minimum of twelve courses over their first two years in the program, usually enrolling in three courses per semester.

Our distribution requirements are designed to provide each student with familiarity across a diverse range of historical periods as well a broad spectrum of thematic and/or methodological concerns. The department values both traditional historical fields as well as non-historical ways of conceiving literary criticism, and assumes that the study of literature includes the study of film, visual culture, and media studies. Our distribution requirements reflect an emphasis on traditional and non-traditional ways of conceiving fields.

Students must take six courses from the following eight areas, with four courses drawn from 1-5, and two drawn from 6-8:

1. Medieval
2. Renaissance
3. Restoration and 18th Century (British and/or American)
4. 19th Century (British and/or American)
5. Modern & Contemporary (British and/or American)
6. Criticism and Theory
7. Race, Ethnicity, and Postcoloniality
8. Gender and Sexuality

The six-course distribution requirement comprises 50% of the courses required for the degree, leaving sufficient room for additional intensive coursework in your area of specialization. One of your distribution courses may be taken as an “audit.”  With the professor’s consent, in lieu of writing a formal seminar paper, you have the option of sitting for a final examination, preparing a series of shorter essays, or completing another assignment determined by the professor, for those courses taken to fulfill the distribution requirement. This option is designed to lessen the amount of writing you do in fields outside your area of specialization, and such arrangements with the professor are best made at the beginning of each course.

While some graduate seminars may cover more than one field, you may not use one course to fulfill two or more distribution requirements at the same time. For example, a Medieval course with a heavy theory component may fulfill either the Medieval requirement or the Theory option; a Romanticism course from 1750 to 1850 may fulfill either the Restoration and 18th Century requirement or the 19th Century requirement. If you are uncertain what requirement a course may fulfill, you may consult with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). In no case shall a single course fulfill two distribution requirements simultaneously.

If you hold a MA in English literature when you enroll at Princeton, you may have already taken a number of distribution courses for that degree. If this is your situation, you may petition the DGS to reduce the distribution requirement from six courses to no fewer than four. When you petition for a reduction in the course distribution requirement, you need to provide for faculty review a syllabus and all written work for a course completed for the MA in the specific field you plan to waive. This special reduction for students entering with an MA does not reduce the minimum course requirement. All students in the PhD program are required to complete twelve courses (two of which may be audited) by the end of the fourth semester to proceed forward to the degree.


Each entering student is assigned a faculty advisor who works with the director of graduate studies in planning course selection in the first and second years. After successfully submitting and presenting the dissertation proposal during the spring of the third year, students will choose three department faculty members who will serve as their dissertation advisers.

Graduate Action Committee (GAC)

The Graduate Action Committee (GAC) is a representative group of graduate students in the English Department that works to advocate graduate student concerns to the faculty and administration of the department. Among its primary goals are representing the concerns of the entire graduate student body, promoting intellectual and social interaction between faculty and graduate students, organizing an annual speaker series of distinguished academics, and improving the quality of graduate student life at Princeton. Every graduate student in the department is welcome and encouraged to participate in the GAC at all levels of involvement or to bring their concerns to the attention of WGGI.

Working Group on Graduate Issues (WGGI)

The Working Group on Graduate Issues (WGGI) is a four- or five-person elected group of students who meet at several points during the academic year with the chair, director of graduate studies, and one additional faculty member to represent graduate student concerns.


Graduate students are welcome to participate in a variety of seminars and colloquia organized by the English Department and other departments and programs. These may involve the discussion of an article or problem, the presentation of a paper, or a forum for debate. Colloquia also include one-day conferences on a number of topics. Students may also participate in the meetings of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies; attend the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism; and involve themselves in any of the many colloquia under the aegis of the Council of the Humanities.  The department sponsors graduate-student organized colloquia that are based around fields of interest. Currently there are nine major colloquia that include American, Contemporary Poetry, Medieval, Postcolonial, Renaissance, 18th Century & Romantic Studies, Theory, Victorian, and 20th Century.  In addition, there is a thriving graduate student Works in Progress lunch time talk series.


All graduate students who have passed the General Examination are required to teach in undergraduate courses as part of their preparation. While the minimum department requirement is four hours, most students teach more than this. The department offers many opportunities for teaching experience in conjunction with its large and popular undergraduate program. Students may teach in the writing program, conduct sections of large lecture courses, or direct precepts in upper-division courses. This teaching is supervised by experienced members of the faculty. The department and university also offer, on an annual basis, a teacher training seminar and workshop.

Library Collections

In addition to the general collection of the Firestone Library, students in the Department of English have access to a number of special collections which are particularly rich in materials for study: one of the most important collections of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States; works of the Restoration Period, with emphasis on the drama; the theater collection, which contains materials for the study of theatrical history; extensive collections concerning the history and literature of the middle Atlantic and southern states; the Sinclair Hamilton Collection of American Illustrated books, 1670-1870; the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists; the J. Harlin O'Connell Collection of the 1890's and the Gallatin Collection of Aubrey Beardsley; and the archives of major American publishing houses. The extensive Miriam Y. Holden Collection of Books on the History of Women is located adjacent to the department's basic literature collection in the Scribner Room. The Robert H. Taylor Collection, which is strong throughout the range of English literature, is now housed in the library and is available for students' use.

Job Placement

Admission and Financial Aid

Competition for admission to the program is keen. About ten new students from a wide range of backgrounds are enrolled each year. The department looks for candidates of outstanding ability and intellectual promise who have the potential to be lively, effective and sympathetic scholars and teachers. Its judgements are based on letters of recommendation, transcripts, a personal statement, a sample of the candidate's academic writing, and performance on the GRE verbal aptitude and subject tests. Facility in foreign languages is also taken into account. To access the online application, please visit the Graduate Admission Office website.

Fellowships are awarded by the Graduate School at large, on the department's recommendation. Awards are made on the combined bases of financial need, as demonstrated on the GAPSFAS (financial statement) form, and academic merit. Financial aid cannot be guaranteed and students are encouraged to seek outside sources of support. Fellowship awards are usually continued at their original levels while the student is in good standing in the program. In the third, fourth, and fifth years, students have the opportunity to teach in undergraduate courses as Assistants in Instruction. Assistants in Instruction are paid at a rate somewhat higher than most fellowships.  Dissertation students are also eligible to apply for competitive internal fellowships, such as those offered by the Graduate School, the Center for Human Values and the Center for the Study of Religion.

English Department

The department offices, lecture halls, and seminar rooms are located in McCosh Hall. Most graduate seminars meet here, in classrooms and faculty offices. There are two libraries in the McCosh Hall, the Thorp Library, which is adjacent to the main office and offers a casual meeting-place over coffee for students and faculty during the day, and the Hinds Library, the department’s reading room and lounge. There is also a separate English Graduate Reading Room in Firestone Library, where reserve books for graduate seminars are kept on the shelves. It is adjacent to the Scribner Room, the department's large non-circulating collection of books and journals.


The Graduate School provides University housing for about 65 percent of the graduate student body. New students have first priority. Many students without dependants choose to live in the Graduate College, a handsome Gothic dormitory complex located about one-half mile from the center of campus. Unfurnished apartments for married students are also available. While housing in the Princeton area is expensive, many graduate students find convenient and attractive private housing, sharing accommodations or investigating neighboring towns. There are also opportunities for graduate students to apply for resident positions in the undergraduate colleges.

Visiting Princeton

Applicants for admission are welcome to visit the campus at any time, and tours of the campus are available. Because of the large number of applicants, we are unable to hold interviews. Once the formal admissions period is over by the end of February, admitted students will be invited to campus and will have the opportunity to visit seminars, and meet with faculty and current graduate students.