Master Of Philosophy (M. Phil.)

The first year of the PhD program is the sequential MA program. Click here for more information on the sequential MA. 

  • Registration: Two (2) Residence Units
  • Advising: Two (2) meetings per semester between student and assigned adviser
  • Coursework: ENGL GR6913 Teaching Writing I (R credit) and 6 graded courses (18 credits), with grades of B or higher 
    Specific Classes:
  • Teaching Writing (GR6913), spring term
  • Seminar Requirement
    • Four (4) 6000-level seminars, two (2) per semester
  • Distribution of Classes
    • For MA distribution requirements, see the guide to the sequential MA program here
  • Make a plan to complete Certification of Proficiency in a Third Language by the end of Year Three.
  • Registration: Two (2) Residence Units 
  • Coursework: in rare cases, any remaining required coursework; additional seminars and lectures as needed to prepare for the orals exam; ENGL GR6914 Teaching Writing II (R credit)
  • Teaching: One (1) section of University Writing per semester
  • Certification of Proficiency in a Third Language
  • Orals: Successful completion of the Orals Examination.

    Note: all M.Phil. requirements must be completed before the orals exam is taken. If necessary, students who fail to complete M.Phil. requirements in their third year, may, upon obtaining the approval of their examiners and the DGS, take their orals in the fall of their fourth year. The M.Phil. degree is not awarded until all requirements have been fulfilled.
  • The M.Phil. degree: this degree, which includes passing the orals, confers official standing as a certified doctoral candidate. Although admission into the M.Phil. program is generally seen as constituting candidacy for the Ph.D., the M.Phil. is actually a prerequisite for official acceptance into the doctoral program, and is a terminal degree for students who do not proceed to write a dissertation.

Students with M.A. degrees from Columbia University
M.Phil. students should register for two (2) "residence units" (RU), i.e., two semesters of full tuition each year.

Students with M.A.degrees from outside Columbia University
The first year of the M.Phil. is the first year at Columbia for students who have received full credit for an M.A. degree elsewhere and who enter directly into our M.Phil. program. As this is the second year of our sequential M.A./M.Phil./Ph.D program, we consider all entering M.Phil. candidates as second-year students, even though this may be their first year on our campus. M.Phil. requirements remain the same for continuing and newly-arrived students. Students admitted to the M.Phil. program from another institution should consult the DGS about which courses can be accepted.

These students should also register for two (2) "residence units" (RU), i.e., two
semesters of full tuition each year.

Advising: See "Advising" in the M.A. Degree section

Teaching Writing (ENGL GR6913y)
This course introduces students to pedagogical as well as practical issues involved in running a section of Columbia University's Undergraduate Writing Program. This course is run through the Undergraduate Writing Center, and is taken for R credit, with no letter grade unless the student chooses to write a research paper.

Teaching Tutorial (ENGL GR6910 x or y)
With the permission of the faculty instructor, some departmental Teaching Fellows may teach voluntary discussion sections attached to usually large undergraduate lecture courses. The course is taken for "R" credit and may count as one of the six courses required for the M.Phil. It may also fulfill a distribution requirement.

In addition to the general requirements and required classes, students in the first year of the M.Phil.—which is the Sequential MA Program—must complete one course in each of the following categories:

  • literatures and cultures pre-1500
  • literatures and cultures from 1500-1800 
  • literatures and cultures since 1800

Two of these requirements must be met in the first (MA) year; the third by the end of the second year. 

If you do not know what period your class falls in, please ask your instructor. The test used for requirements is whether the preponderance of assigned reading comes from the period in question – e.g., you cannot satisfy the pre-1500 requirement by writing an essay about Plato in a class on 20th-century fiction.

MPhil students may cross-register for graduate courses at NYU, CUNY, Fordham, Rutgers, Princeton, and SUNY-Stony Brook through the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium (IUDC). More information can be found at the the IUDC page on the GSAS website. Graduate coursework completed through the IUDC may be used to cover distribution requirements. Other than in exceptional circumstances MA students may not take classes through the IUDC. Please note that this is an IUDC rule, not a department regulation, so exceptions can never be guaranteed.

Second Year Teaching
In the second year, students are appointed departmental Teaching Fellows. Each semester they assist with a large lecture course. For some courses, teaching fellows may be asked to lead discussion sections.

Third Year Teaching
Having been trained in their second year, M.Phil. students are expected to start teaching one section of University Writing in the fall semester, and another in the spring. The University Writing Program is associated with the English Department, but is run separately. It is located in 310 Philosophy Hall (contact: [email protected]).

Before scheduling their orals, M.Phil. students must demonstrate proficiency in a third language by one of the means outlined for Certification of Proficiency in a Second Language in the M.A. year.

Note: "Rapid Reading and Translation" courses (e.g. Spanish 1113, Italian 1204, French 1206) sometimes offer final exams that are identical to that department's language proficiency exam. The Rapid Reading final exam mark of Pass satisfies the ENCL language proficiency requirement.

For information about computer languages, see Programming Language Proficiency Exam Guidelines.

The doctoral oral examination forms a bridge between the wide-ranging period of formal coursework and the highly focused work of the Ph.D. dissertation. Orals preparation is the primary activity during the third year of the M.A./M.Phil. program (the second M.Phil. year), with the examination ordinarily taken toward the end of that academic year. The year's work should be a time of intellectual synthesis and definition, an opportunity both to explore new material and to deepen familiarity with material previously studied through independent reading refined by regular conversations with the members of your examining committee.
An orals examination is two hours long, divided among three fields and is intended to accomplish three things:

  • to prepare you as a prospective teacher to master a field - defined pragmatically as an area in which jobs are commonly advertised - and to talk about it with a group of examiners
  • to give you a solid grasp of a distinct but related field beyond your primary field
  • to serve as an exploratory device to help you develop and/or refine a dissertation topic

The exam takes the following form:

The general field is intended to help set a broad context for dissertation work and at the same time to prepare you for a job market in which most jobs are advertised in particular "fields," often historically defined, in which hiring committees typically expect candidates to have a broad general knowledge and an ability to teach introductory survey courses.

These fields can be fairly arbitrary constructs, and no one's intellectual profile need be confined to a single field or a single definition of that field, but the general field gives you an opportunity to begin to work out your personal version of the field in which you'll most likely be applying for jobs.

The common general field areas are:

Other general field areas can be arranged with approval of the DGS, but ordinarily the general field should be developed under one of the above rubrics. There are, of course, many ways to construct a reading list within one of these fields. The field can best be developed with a dual focus on works and issuesYour list should have a good selection of key texts as well as whatever more individual or even idiosyncratic choices are most important to you personally, and you can usefully arrange your texts under half a dozen rubrics representing the issues of most current debate in the field today, weighting your selection of issues toward the ones that most attract you, but also including other major rubrics that you (and your examiners) feel are specially important.

Given the survey function of the general field, unless you're doing a genre-specific field, it is important for your list to show a genuine engagement with the various literary genres most important to the field in question. Your dissertation may well end up focusing entirely on the novel, or drama, or lyric poetry, but hiring committees will expect you to have an active familiarity with a broad generic range within any given historical period.

One thing to keep in mind in preparing orals lists is that the tremendous expansion of the literary canon in recent decades has not led to a pure leveling in which all authors have a comparable presence in a field. Every field tends to have a group of key authors who are constantly discussed - some of them traditional "major authors" and some new entrants into prominence - and hiring committees will likely expect you to have a good familiarity with most such authors in your field, even if your own dissertation focuses largely or entirely on less-discussed people. Even newly emergent fields like postcolonial studies organize themselves in part around ongoing discussion of a cluster of central figures such as Rushdie and Coetzee, and it is a good idea for orals lists to take this fact into account. At the same time, your lists should reflect your personal inclinations and concerns, and will likely include a mix of much-discussed and less-discussed writers.

Please note that all other requirements for the M.Phil. must be completed before orals may be taken. Any exceptions require approval by the DGS.

1) 1-2 paragraphs laying out the overall logic of the three fields. Since this description comes at the beginning of study for the orals, it will inevitably be tentative, suggesting questions for exploration, advancing hypotheses rather than conclusions. At the same time, each field and its description should be sufficiently developed to justify the selection of primary texts.

2) General Field

     •  Full list of primary works

     •  Selected secondary works

     •  Short rationale for the selections

3) Related Field

     •  Full list of primary works

     •  Selected secondary works

     •  Short rationale for the selections

4) Thesis Field, or, Second Related Field

     •  Full list of primary works

     •  Selected secondary works

     •  Short rationale for the selections

Orals lists will ordinarily include a mix of works you have never read and of familiar works you want to return to. Doing 80 brand-new works would be overwhelming, while repeating only familiar works misses the opportunity to extend your range during this year of work. As a rule of thumb, perhaps half the works on your list should be ones you have already read, half new to you.

In formulating proposals, students may consult samples available in the Department's files and at the link below for Sample Reading Lists.

Submit two copies of your proposal with one copy of the cover sheet signed by the four examiners.

For some students, it may be perfectly obvious whom to ask to serve as examiners, but other students find it takes time and careful thought to work out the best committee. In the early stages of the development of the orals proposal, there is often a mutual interaction or biofeedback between evolving topics and the makeup of the committee. Unless you are clear from the outset what you want to do and with whom you want to work, a good first step is to talk to the DGS in the winter of the second year; the DGS is an ideal person with whom to discuss tentative ideas and potential examiners. It is then appropriate to go to potential examiners and sound them out. For each potential examiner, it can be helpful to bring in a page listing a few key issues you are thinking about and some of the texts you expect to include. This initial conversation can be framed in exploratory terms, if you are not yet sure whether this is the topic (and the examiner) for you; it is quite common for students to contemplate a few topics and to speak to half a dozen potential examiners before settling into a final set of topics and examiners.

Ideally, at least a couple of your examiners will be people you think of as likely dissertation committee members (dissertations have three primary committee members). The actual dissertation committee, however, need not be drawn purely from the orals committee.

Ordinarily at least two of the four orals examiners should be tenured members of the department, but junior and senior faculty alike can be asked to serve on orals committees, as can adjunct faculty and faculty from other departments at Columbia.

At times, a faculty member from outside Columbia is asked and agrees to serve, though the department does not have funds to compensate such service. Such arrangements are most often made when a student has been working with someone off-campus (often in courses taken through the Consortium); if you have a working relationship with such a person and want to ask, it is fine to do so, though you should be aware that this is a special favor and not press the matter if you sense any hesitation on the part of someone outside the university.

Faculty who are on leave will ordinarily be ready to work with you regardless, and will be available to meet with you periodically, even if they are not otherwise holding office hours. The situation can be more complicated if the examiner will actually be out of town while on leave. If an examiner is away for one semester, it may be most effective to hold off primary work on that field until the examiner's return; on the other hand, especially if the examiner is away for a year, it is perfectly possible to be in steady contact via e-mail.

As you first arrange your orals fields, you should ask your examiners if they will be away during the period of your orals preparation, as well as during the likely time of the orals examination itself. Though leaves will not ordinarily interfere with the process (faculty who are away on leave often come back a couple of times specifically for orals and defenses), it is best to discuss the question directly, so that you and your prospective examiner can work out a mutually agreeable plan of work and of contact. If necessary, it can be better to find a different examiner than to go ahead with someone who will not be able to give you proper feedback, or whose absence would seriously delay the taking of the orals. In such cases, it is clearly best to work this out up front, rather than become locked into an unproductive situation. In those rare cases when a desired examiner is unavailable, that person will certainly understand the logic of your getting the orals done with someone else, and once back from leave, will still be available for dissertation work thereafter.

Orals Discussion Groups

Students studying for orals often find it helpful to create informal discussion groups with members of their cohort and field.  These groups usually form when students are preparing orals proposals, and continue to meet once or twice a month until exams are completed to discuss readings.  It is also helpful for students studying for orals to speak with those who have recently passed them; one way to facilitate this is to have orals groups invite fourth-year students to their first meetings of the fall semester.

Mandatory meeting with Examiners, and written work

Committee members must plan to meet with their students during the orals year. In the spring before the orals year, when the student is preparing his/her lists and rationales, these plans for meeting and writing must be discussed and confirmed by advisers and students. If a faculty member will be away that year, the plan for how to communicate should be established in advance.

Major field advisers must meet with the student at least four times over the course of the third year (this can be divided between the two major field faculty). Each minor field adviser must meet with the student at least two times over the course of the third year. It is expected that for each of these meetings the student will produce written reports, as specified by the advisers. Before the final such meeting, the written report should have a more comprehensive character, specifics of which should be negotiated with the adviser.

Reading by Yourself

  • Organize your time so that you have a good chunk of prime work time every day for your orals preparation and not allow teaching or other work to expand to fill your time.
  • Be very selective about taking any further courses; one course a semester can provide a nice break from orals study, particularly if it relates directly to your orals work (perhaps in the form of the teacher as well as the syllabus); but you should resist the temptation to keep adding courses for their own sake. Your orals lists themselves are your primary coursework for the third year.
  • Take notes! Ideally, a page or two for each work you read. Your own reflections, a few key quotes, perhaps a listing of characters' names or of specific incidents you want to remember, a couple of important points raised by any secondary reading you have done that relates to the work in question. A binder with such notes is much easier to review at the year's end than your marginalia scattered through the thousands of pages of the books themselves. If you have studied a given work for a graduate class, you may be able to use existing notes and only review that work fairly rapidly. 

The Theory Behind the Exam

While much of the work of the orals lies in the reading and the conversation that lead up to the examination, the orals examination itself is an important event. It is an opportunity for the student to do several things: to demonstrate some mastery of her field and related areas; to give a sense of how she approaches the field; to articulate the primary animating questions and ideas she is considering as a beginning of her dissertation; to be an interlocutor with the questioners and with the authors she has been reading; and to show that she is ready to enter into the final stage of the Ph.D. program, where she will be expected to undertake independent scholarship and to become an active participant in the discipline. 

Pass, Low Pass, or Fail

There are three possible marks. Candidates receiving Pass who have fulfilled all other M.Phil. requirements are awarded the M.Phil. degree and proceed to the doctoral program. Candidates receiving Fail are not awarded the M.Phil. and are not permitted to re-take the orals or advance to the doctoral program. Candidates receiving Low Pass are eligible to receive the M.Phil. degree. Candidates receiving a Low Pass may petition their committees within three working days if they want to re-take the oral examination; if granted approval, candidates must re-take the exam within one month of the first oral examination. A candidate who fails a second orals must petition the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) for permission to make a third attempt.

Adjusting the List Before the Exam

If there are a few works on your lists that you have not managed to get to by the time the orals date approaches, it would be prudent to raise this with the relevant examiner(s); it can usually be agreed to leave such works to the side, unless your examiners feel that too much material has not yet been covered and the orals should be postponed. In either event, you should determine this in advance, rather than at the examination itself.

You should have this in mind as you do your orals preparation: what possible topics and approaches are starting to open up? A fairly definite idea may crystallize during the period of orals preparation, but even if not, by the day of the orals you will likely have some general ideas that you can test out, or an area and group of authors of interest. The conversation may also carry forward issues raised in your field discussions during the preceding two hours. You should ideally emerge from this conversation with a sense of the next steps you need to take in refining your ideas.

Process of the Exam

The orals may be taken as early as February 1 but no later than April 15 of the third year.

The orals examination ordinarily begins with the general field, then proceeds to the related field, and then to the thesis field, or second related field. The examiners take the primary or even exclusive role in discussion of their fields, but may also speak up during fields other than their own. You should bring your orals lists with you but not plan on taking notes, as the focus should be directly on the conversation.

At the conclusion of the two-hour examination, there will be a short recess while your examiners assess the exam. On your return to the room,  you will have a twenty-minute preliminary conversation with your examiners about your proposed or possible dissertation. When you have had a formal "thesis field" with a primary examiner, this further conversation will give the other examiners a fuller chance to offer comments and suggestions; if you have offered two related fields rather than a thesis field, this conversation will give you an opportunity to set out some tentative ideas for the dissertation.


Within four weeks of the successful oral exam, the student must produce a short (3-5) page pre-prospectus in which s/he gives a preliminary view of the dissertation plan. This assignment is not graded but will be read by all four orals committee members, who are expected to give prompt feedback so that the student can quickly proceed to work on the prospectus.