The Ph.D. Program in English Language and Literature

The doctoral program in English Language and Literature offers two degree options for the prospective applicant: the Ph.D. and the Joint M.F.A./Ph.D. Graduate students pursue intensive study with distinguished faculty committed to creative and intellectual achievement.

The Programs

post-reading Nabokov loungeThe department enrolls about twelve Ph.D. students each year, including a small number of students pursuing the joint M.F.A./Ph.D. program. 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 of three faculty members who work closely along side them to design a course of study within the very broad framework established by the department. The program is extremely flexible in regard to such matters as course selection, the design of examinations, and the election of minor subjects of concentration outside the department. English Ph.D. students pursuing interdisciplinary research may include on their Special Committees faculty members from related fields such as Comparative Literature, Medieval Studies, Romance Studies, German Studies, History, Classics, Women’s Studies, Linguistics, Theatre and Performing Arts, Government, Philosophy, and Film and Video Studies.

The Ph.D. Program

The Ph.D. candidate is normally expected to complete six or seven one-semester courses for credit in the first year of residence and a total of six or seven more in the second and third years. The program of any doctoral candidate’s formal and informal study, whatever his or her particular interests, should be comprehensive enough to ensure familiarity with:

  • the authors and works that have been the most influential in determining the course of English, American, and related literatures;
  • 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.

Areas in which students may have major or minor concentrations include African American Literature; American Literature to 1865; American Literature after 1865; American Studies (a joint program with the field of History); Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures; Cultural Studies; Dramatic Literature; English Poetry; the English Renaissance to 1660; Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Literary Studies; Literary Criticism and Theory; the Nineteenth Century; Old and Middle English; Prose Fiction; the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century; the Twentieth Century; Women's Literature; Creative Writing (the major concentration for all M.F.A. candidates).

By the time a doctoral candidate enters the fourth semester of graduate study, the Special Committee must decide whether she or he is qualified to proceed toward the Ph.D. Students are required to pass their Advancement to Candidacy Examination before their fourth year of study, prior to the dissertation.

The Special Committee

committee studentEvery graduate student selects a Special Committee of faculty advisors who work intensively with the student in selecting courses and preparing and revising the dissertation. The Committee is comprised of at least three Cornell faculty members: a chair, and typically 2 minor members usually from the English department but very often representing an interdisciplinary field. 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 for each student guides and supervises all academic work and assesses progress in a series of meetings with the students.


teachingAt Cornell, teaching is considered an integral part of training in academia. The Field requires a carefully supervised teaching experience of at least one year for every doctoral candidate as part of the program requirements. The Department of English, in conjunction with the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, offers excellent training for beginning teachers and varied and interesting teaching in the university-wide First-Year Writing Program. The courses are writing-intensive and may fall under such general rubrics as “Portraits of the Self,” “American Literature and Culture,” “Shakespeare,” and “Cultural Studies,” among others. A graduate student may also serve as a Teaching Assistant for an undergraduate lecture course taught by a member of the Department of English.

Language Requirements for the Ph.D. Program

fall windowEach student and Special Committee will decide what work in foreign language is most appropriate for a student’s graduate program and scholarly interests. Some students’ doctoral programs require extensive knowledge of a single foreign language and literature; others require reading ability in two or more foreign languages. A student may be asked to demonstrate competence in foreign languages by presenting the undergraduate record, taking additional courses in foreign languages and literature, or translating and discussing documents related to the student’s work. Students are also normally expected to provide evidence of having studied the English language through courses in Old English, the history of the English language, grammatical analysis, or the application of linguistic study to metrics or to literary criticism. Several departments at Cornell offer pertinent courses in such subjects as descriptive linguistics, psycholinguistics, and the philosophy of language.


Ph.D. and Joint M.F.A./Ph.D. degree candidates are guaranteed five-years of funding combining:
  • a first-year non-teaching fellowship with a full tuition fellowship
  • two years of Teaching Assistantships with full tuition fellowships
  • a fourth-year non-teaching fellowship for the dissertation writing year, with a full tuition fellowship
  • a fifth-year Teaching Assistantship with full tuition fellowship
  • summer support for four years, including a first-year summer teaching assistantship, linked to a teachers’ training program at the Knight Institute. Summer residency in Ithaca is required.
  • All of the above fellowships and assistantships include a stipend and Student Health Insurance for all candidates, including international candidates.

Students also have competed successfully for Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Dissertation Fellowships, Buttrick-Crippen Fellowship, Society for the Humanities Fellowships, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Shin Yong-Jin Graduate Fellowships, Provost’s Diversity Fellowships, fellowships 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.

Admission and Application


Minimum Degree: Applicants must currently have, or expect to have, at least a B.A. or B.S. (or the equivalent) in any field before matriculation.

Application submission: All applications and supplemental materials must be submitted on-line through The Graduate School application system. While completing your application, you may save and edit your data. Once you click “submit” your application will be closed for changes. Please proofread your materials carefully. Once you pay and click submit, you will not be able to make any changes or revisions.

Deadline: December 15th, 5:00 p.m. EST. This deadline is firm. No applications, additional materials, or revisions will be accepted after the deadline.

Application Review: Application review begins after the submission deadline.

Admissions Decisions: Notification of admissions decisions will be made by email or by telephone by the end of February.

Ph.D. Program Application Requirements Summary

Please read the application requirements summary outlined below before you begin your application. All applications, writing samples, personal statements, unofficial transcripts, letters of recommendation, and fees must be submitted on-line through the Graduate School application system.

Statement of Purpose

A statement of purpose is a one- or two-page single-spaced statement covering the reasons you are undertaking graduate work and explaining your academic interests as they relate to your undergraduate study and professional goals.

Three Letters of Recommendation

Three letters of recommendation from those persons who best know you and your work are required. Submitting additional letters will not enhance your application.

In the recommendation section of the application, you must include the email address of each recommender. After you save the information (and before you pay/submit), the application system will automatically generate a recommendation request email to your recommender with instructions for submitting the letter electronically. If circumstances prevent your recommender from submitting a letter electronically, we will accept the letter in paper form mailed to the Department of English, Graduate Coordinator, 250 Goldwin Smith Hall.

If your letters are stored with a credential service such as Interfolio, please use their “Online Application Delivery” feature and input the email address assigned to your stored document, rather than that of your recommender’s. The electronic files will be attached to your application whenever they are received and will not require the Letter of Recommendation cover page.

Please do not postpone submitting your application while waiting for us to receive all three of your letters. We will accept recommendation letters that arrive after the deadline.


Scan transcripts from each institution you have attended, or are currently attending, and upload into the Academic Information section of the application. Redact, cross out, or cover your Social Security Number on the paper transcripts prior to scanning. Please do not send paper copies of your transcripts. If you are subsequently admitted and accept the offer of admission, we will require a formal and official paper transcript from your degree-awarding institution prior to matriculation.

English Language Proficiency Requirement

International applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language by submitting official test scores from TOEFL or IELTS. The English Department requires the minimum scores as published by the Graduate School. For more information regarding English language proficiency requirements and exemptions, please view the Graduate School’s English Language Requirement.

GRE General Test and GRE Subject Test

Both the General Test and the Subject Test in English Language and Literature are required for all Ph.D. applicants. The department does not have a minimum score requirement on either test.

ETS administers the tests at periodic intervals through out the year. Please plan ahead when scheduling your test date. You are required to self-report your test scores on the application AND to instruct ETS to send your official scores to us. The committee will not make any admission offers without having the official scores. Scores that are over 5 years old are no longer valid.

Critical Writing Sample

Your writing sample must be between 3,000 and 7,500 words (12-30 pages), typed and double-spaced. We accept excerpts from longer works, or a combination of shorter works.

General Information for All Applicants

Application fee: Please visit the Graduate School for information regarding application fees, payment options, and fee waivers.

Document identification: Do not put your social security number on any documents.

Visiting the department: Due to the high volume of applications and visit requests that we receive, the department does not offer pre-admission visits or interviews. If admitted, you will be invited to visit the department before making your decision to enroll. During your visit you will have the opportunity to attend graduate seminars, and to meet with faculty and graduate students.

Status Inquiries: Once you submit your application, you will receive a confirmation email and you will be able to check the completion status of your application in your application account. If vital sections of your application are missing, we will notify you via email after the December 15 deadline and allow you ample time to provide the missing materials. Please do not inquire about the status of your application.

Credential and application assessments: The Admission Review Committee members are unable to review application materials and applicant credentials prior to official application submission. Once the committee has reviewed the applications and made their admissions decisions, they will not discuss the results or make any recommendations for improving the strength of an applicant’s credentials. Applicants looking for feedback are advised to consult with their undergrad advisor or someone else who knows them and their work.

Transfer credits: Students matriculating with an M.A. may, at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies, receive credit for up to three courses.

» For further information, contact the Graduate Coordinator at