You are here: Home / Graduate / Ph.D. Program

Ph.D. Program

The graduate program in Comparative Literature at Penn State offers two admissions tracks, based on the starting credentials of incoming applicants.  Students coming into the program with a B.A. in literature or a related field(s) are generally admitted into the 6-year M.A./Ph.D. program.  Students who enter the program already holding an M.A. in Comparative Literature or related field(s) (whether from Penn State or from other universities) generally enter the 5-year PhD–only program. 

The 6-year PhD Program (the M.A./Ph.D.)

Designed for students to complete both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in a single sequence, this program is designed for advanced students who will receive their Ph.D. in a total of 6 years (post- B.A.).  This program may also be suitable for students who hold an M.A. in a related field, but who will benefit from more coursework in Comparative Literature.

The total credits required for the 6-year program are 48. The program consists of course work, a candidacy examination, a demonstration of language proficiency, a comprehensive examination, and a dissertation—in that order.

The 5-year Ph.D.-only Program

Students entering the graduate program who hold an M.A. degree in Comparative Literature or a related field(s) may be selected to enter the 5-year Ph.D.-only admission track.

The total credits required for the 5-year program are 33. The program consists of course work, a candidacy examination, a demonstration of language proficiency, a comprehensive examination, and a dissertation—in that order.


Ph.D. course work is in addition to courses used to satisfy M.A. requirements. It includes

  1. 10 required credits in Comparative Literature are required: CMLIT 501 (3 credits), 502 (3 credits), and 503 (3 credits); and CMLIT 602 (1 credit). (If these courses have been taken in the student's master's program, other Comparative Literature courses are substituted.)
  2. Additional credits to satisfy the requirements appropriate to the program (up to 33 for the five-year program, and 48 for the six-year program). Some courses should focus on the languages and literatures that will be the subject of the student’s dissertation, and his or her major professional field(s).

Students should organize their coursework around an identifiable unifying principle, such as a genre, period, or theme, or a specific, well-defined problem involving literature and another discipline, or literary theory and criticism.

M.A. Paper

Students in the 6-year pattern take the candidacy exam and the comprehensive exam; they also prepare an M.A. paper in accordance with the guidelines specified for the M.A. degree.  This paper requirement should be met by the fourth semester of the program. Students in the 5-year program do not do an M.A. paper.

500 Level Courses

To meet university requirements for an M.A., by the end of the first two years, 18 or more credits must be at 500 levels or above.  The usual expectation is that all, or nearly all, courses in the 5-year program will be at that level.

Language Requirement

Doctoral work requires graduate-level study in three languages. One of these languages may be English. The choice of languages depends on the student’s intellectual development and program of study, and is made in consultation with the advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies. Some students find that their areas of interest will require the acquisition of additional languages during their doctoral program. Graduates of our doctoral program have tended to concentrated on literatures in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Ukrainian. Work in the medieval literatures of some of these languages (for example, Old French) is also common.

The foreign language requirement can be fulfilled in three ways:

  1. A grade of B or better in an intermediate- or advanced-level foreign language or literature course at Penn State.
  2. Successful performance on an examination administered by a Comparative Literature department faculty (or faculty in other Liberal Arts departments) with competence in the language.
  3. A waiver granted by the Graduate Committee for bilingual students, native speakers, or students whose academic records otherwise demonstrate competence (e.g., an undergraduate major or minor).

Working with their advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies, students should in their first year establish a clear plan for fulfilling the foreign language requirement during their time of study.

Candidacy Exam

During the second year of coursework, students prepare for the PhD candidacy exam, which consists of written and oral portions.  The purpose of the exam is to determine whether the student should continue to work toward the Ph.D., and if so, to plan the doctoral program. It must be taken early in the Ph.D. program, so this decision can be made before either the department or the student has made an extensive commitment. Working with the Director of Graduate Studies, students select an advisor and form faculty committees to administer the exam.

Comprehensive Examination

During the final year of coursework, students take a Comprehensive Exam in consultation with their doctoral committee, which prepares, conducts, and evaluates the exam.   The comprehensive exam has two parts. The first part is a written exam based on three reading lists in the student’s fields of study, followed by a discussion of the written exam with the doctoral committee. The second part consists of an oral exam based on the dissertation prospectus.

The first part of the exam measures the student's mastery of his/her field(s) of study. It serves two purposes: first, to prepare the student as a prospective teacher in his/her field(s) of study; and secod, to develop the necessary historical, literary, theoretical, and critical knowledge and thinking skills that will help the student determine a dissertation topic and compose a dissertation prospectus. The second part of the exam is dedicated to discussing the dissertation prospectus.

Oral Defense

The final oral examination (“defense”) concentrates on, but is not necessarily limited to, the dissertation's subject. It is conducted by the candidate's dissertation committee. A complete draft of the dissertation must be made available to the committee at least two weeks before the scheduled defense. Immediately following the defense, the doctoral committee meets to discuss the quality of the written and oral components of the dissertation, to make the decision of pass or fail, and to determine the revisions, if any, to be undertaken before they will approve the dissertation. Dissertations judged by the committee to be of superior quality are awarded departmental distinction. The student and the dissertation chairperson should plan a calendar of progress that will allow adequate time for the final draft to be read within the department and revised, if necessary, before it is due at the Graduate School. In some cases (for example, if a member of the committee is out of town), it may be necessary to allow more time.

Doctoral Committees

Each student works with an individually appointed doctoral committee of faculty members. The composition of the committee, the nucleus of which is usually the same group of faculty that has administered the candidacy exam, is subject to the approval of the Graduate Director and to the regulations of the Graduate School, which officially appoints these individual committees for each doctoral student. At least four Penn State members are needed. The major field (CMLIT) must be represented by at least two members of the department. The committee also includes a faculty member whose field of interest is different from that of the candidate, and a faculty member whose home department is outside CMLIT (these may or may not be the same). The doctoral minor or dual-title degree program (if any) must have representation on the committee. A CMLIT faculty member must be chair or co-chair.

Dual-Title PhDs

Comparative Literature offers two dual-title PhD programs, in Comparative Literature and African Studies, and in Comparative Literature and Asian Studies.

Dual-title degree programs give students a solid grounding in the fundamental methods and background of a single discipline, while allowing the student's work to be extended through participation in an interdisciplinary program that connects students to faculty across the university, allow them to do creative, high-level scholarship, and make them compelling candidates on the academic job market. Students are admitted first to their primary department (Comparative Literature) and then to the second field. Students take coursework in both programs and have representatives of both programs on their committees.  They may also have teaching opportunities in both programs. 

To apply for a dual-title PhD, you need simply to indicate on your application that you wish to be considered for acceptance into a dual-title degree program.

Doctoral Minors

A formal doctoral minor requires 15 credits of approved coursework. A representative of the minor (from a participating department other than the student's home department) must be included on the student's doctoral committee. Students interested in minors should notify the Graduate Director and their advisor, to discuss the feasibility of fitting in the minor, and then approach the department of the minor field in order to ascertain specific course requirements.

Doctoral Minor in Literary Theory, Criticism, and Aesthetics. Students in Comparative Literature and in other disciplines may choose to take a minor in literary theory, criticism, and aesthetics, which is administered jointly by Philosophy and Comparative Literature.

The minor strengthens the training of students in literature and in related fields by providing a coherent philosophical and theoretical basis for their advanced work. It also provides an interdisciplinary context for their doctoral program. A core of 6 credits exposes students to literary theory and criticism (through either CMLIT 502 or 503) and to aesthetics or interpretation theory (through either PHIL 409 or 516).

In addition to the minor in criticism, theory, and aesthetics, other minors may be useful. The minor in women’s studies has been especially popular. Minors may also be taken in fields such as geography, history, anthropology, philosophy, theatre, or marketing. When a minor is undertaken, a representative of the minor field is included on the student's doctoral committee, and some aspect or methodology of the minor subject must be present in the dissertation.

How to Apply

Admission to graduate study in Comparative Literature at Penn State is based on a number of considerations. Above all we seek intellectually curious, highly motivated students whose interests suggest a good fit with our departmental strengths. We welcome well-qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds.

We are often asked what our committee looks for and the truth is that there is no standard formula. We consider GPAs and test scores (GREs and TOEFLs), but above all we look for intellectual engagement and scholarly commitment. The graduate committee that evaluates applicants seeks evidence of intellectual promise, openness to new ideas and methods, capacity for original scholarship, the ability to think critically and to write clearly, and potential for professional success. Of obvious importance for scholars who will work across cultures is appropriate language preparation. Research plans that are in synch with our areas of expertise are also of importance.

For full funding consideration, completed applications should be submitted by January 5, 2016. We will continue to accept applications on rolling basis thereafter; however, those who apply by January 5 will have the best opportunity for support.

We recognize that the vast majority of graduate students require financial assistance to complete their studies. We admit students with multi-year funding packages that include both a stipend and a tuition grant-in-aid. No separate application for financial aid or graduate assistantship is required.

Your application to Comparative Literature at Penn State consists of two groups of items:

A. Items that are provided through the on-line Graduate School Application Portal.

If you are ready to proceed to the application but have NOT read the Graduate School requirements (included application fee information) please visit that website at

If you have read the Graduate School and program requirements and are ready to apply, you may proceed to the application at

This on-line process includes the following items which you will input or upload:

  1. Transcripts. Applicants are required to electronically upload copies of transcripts (or equivalent documents for institutions outside the U.S., e.g., degree/study certificates, diplomas, etc.) from all post-secondary institutions attended, in the language of instruction (and copies of an official English translation if English is not the language of instruction).  Applicants recommended for admission who accept an offer through the online graduate admission system will be notified by the Graduate School that official/original transcripts/documents must be sent from the originating institutions in the official language of the institution(s) attended (and if the language of instruction is not English, an official English translation must also be sent).  The Graduate School will review all official documents to finalize the offer of admission.  An offer of admission will be revoked if official/original documents are not received by the Graduate School within specified deadlines, or if official/original documents differ from the copies uploaded by the applicant prior to the offer of admission.  For applicants whose degree conferral is in progress at the time of uploading copies, the deadline specified for receipt of official/original documents will allow for the passage of the reported date of degree conferral, and that conferral must be confirmed on the official/original documents received by the Graduate School, in order for the offer of admission to be finalized.
  2. Self-reporting of ETS ScoresTOEFL scores are required of applicants who do not hold prior degrees from institutions where the language of instruction is English. Applicants with degrees from U.S. institutions, on the other hand, must supply GRE scores. These are self-reported in your online application, with official scores submitted to the department of Comparative Literature at Penn State through the normal mechanisms of the agencies that administer these tests. Use institution code 2660.
  3. Though GRE scores are not required for applicants from abroad, they are used in determining eligibility for competitive university fellowships. If you have taken the GRE and have scored well, do consider sending us your scores.
  4. Sample of your written work, preferably an essay on literature. 
  5. Statement of purpose.  The statement of purpose should include information on a) your education and other relevant background, including teaching experience or other activities that have prepared you for graduate work in Comparative Literature; b) your research interests; c) your language skills and their application to your research interests; d) your reasons for considering graduate work in Comparative Literature, especially your interest in our specific program.  
  6. A C.V. or resumé.
  7. Three Letters of Reference. We do not require a specific form for recommenders. You input your recommenders' information on the application and they will be sent an email asking them to upload their letter directly.

B. Items sent directly to our department:

  1. Official ETS Scores: TOEFL scores are required of applicants who do not hold prior degrees from institutions where the language of instruction is English. Applicants with degrees from U.S. institutions, on the other hand, must supply GRE scores. These are self-reported in your online application, with official scores submitted to the department of Comparative Literature at Penn State through the normal mechanisms of the agencies that administer these tests.

Applicants are instructed to request that TOEFL and GRE scores be sent to Penn State electronically.  MAT scores are only available in hard copy, so those scores should be sent by postal mail directly from Pearson to Penn State.

IELTS and MAT scores should be mailed to:

The Pennsylvania State University
Graduate Enrollment Services
114 Kern Building
University Park, PA  16802

We encourage you to get to know our faculty, graduate student cohort, and program thoroughly before applying..

Applying from Abroad 

Our program is committed to fostering an intellectually vibrant and international environment at the university.  Fully half the students in Comparative Literature come to Penn State from universities outside the United States. We have extensive experience working with, and training, students whose native language is not English, and in preparing them to succeed as scholars, either in the United States or abroad.         

For international applicants (applying from beyond the US), GRE scores are not required; the TOEFL test is instead a requirement for admission.  You are of course welcome to take the GRE exam; we welcome any information that might help demonstrate your qualifications for admission into the program. While we do take test scores into consideration, the graduate committee that evaluates applicants seeks evidence of intellectual promise, the ability to think critically and to write clearly, the capacity for original scholarship, and openness to new ideas and methods.

How We Train and Place Our Students

Because we admit only 3-5 students a year, we are able to offer an innovative and flexible curriculum that allows students to design individualized programs of study tailored to their interests. We aim to produce accomplished, serious intellectuals and scholars who are ready to become college or university professors, or to use the skills and training they receive at Penn State in other capacities and other professions.

First-year students go through a semester-long course, CMLIT 501, that introduces them to the fundamental interpretive, research, and writing skills of the discipline. We continue to work with students on research and writing, not only in coursework, but also through our Writing Fellowship Program. The WFP offers $4,000 in summer salary, and $1,000 in research support, to up to five students a year. Students in the program attend writing workshops and do independent studies with faculty members as they spend 9-12 months working on an article to be submitted for publication in a scholarly journal. Preference for the WFP is normally given to students in their second year of study, but all students are eligible.

When it comes time to go on the academic job market, all our students receive extensive support. We work with students to craft letters, CVs, and other important documents; we also run mock interviews and mock job talks to prepare our job candidates to do their best in Skype interviews, at the MLA, or on campus.

Job Placement

The department provides a comprehensive support program for helping students prepare themselves for a successful job search. Throughout the graduate program, our faculty offers substantial career mentoring and advice on how to develop strong credentials, including planning for professional development from the start of a student’s graduate career.

Of our PhD graduates from the past ten years (2002-2012), 85% currently hold full-time academic positions, of which roughly two thirds are tenure-track. In the United States, institutions that have hired our graduates include research universities such as Carnegie Mellon, Central Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, the University of Nebraska, the University of Utah, and Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as liberal arts colleges such as Bay Path, Bennington, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Nicolette, Reed, Smith, Stockton, Vassar, the University of Dubuque, and Shawnee State University. In a testament to the global focus of our graduate program, our students have also successfully found employment around the world; recent graduates currently teach at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia; Tsinghua University in China; the Universität Bielefeld in Germany; El Colegio de México; Prague Metropolitan University in the Czech Republic; the University of Athens in Greece; Dogus University in Turkey; Tokyo Gakugei University in Japan, and the American University of Central Asia in the Kyrgyz Republic, among other international universities.