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Program Milestones

Qualifying Paper

The purpose of the qualifying paper is to certify that students are likely to be able to undertake the quality of research, sustained argumentation, and cogent writing demanded in a doctoral dissertation. Qualifying papers should, therefore, embody a substantial amount of independent research, develop an intellectual argument with significant elements of original thinking, and demonstrate the ability to do interdisciplinary work. A paper originally written for a class assignment version should be regarded as a draft. Readers expect the final qualifying paper to include significant new research and writing.

  • In the winter quarter of the second year, the student must submit a 25-30 page paper based on a term paper written during the first year.
  • Each student is expected to have a topic developed and readers designated at the end of spring quarter of the first year.
  • Each paper will be read and evaluated by two readers. One reader must be a member of the MTL Committee in Charge or must have been a member within the previous five years.  Students are expected to submit drafts to their readers, who may offer suggestions to rewrite and rethink aspects of the qualifying paper as necessary.
  • Students should designate their readers as part of the year-end report process in May of their first year. This allows students to receive the fullest benefit from early guidance and feedback. Students should begin work on their papers over the summer following the first year. Designated readers may be changed only with the Director’s approval.

The final step in the qualifying process is a conference during which students, having received a satisfactory evaluation on their qualifying papers, will present their results orally to an audience of their peers and advisors. Each student gives a 20-minute presentation, followed by a brief Q&A. The date varies from year to year but is often scheduled for the last week of the winter quarter.

Qualifying Paper Guidelines


Students must demonstrate, by the end of the third quarter of the first year, a reading knowledge of one foreign language and, by the beginning of the first quarter of the third year, a reading knowledge of one other foreign language. Reading knowledge means the ability to make a genuine scholarly use of the language: that is, to read prose of ordinary difficulty.

Students may not take the University oral examination before completion of the foreign language requirement.


At the end of the second year, students apply for candidacy. The following qualifications are required before candidacy can be certified: the earlier submission of a satisfactory qualifying paper; demonstration of a reading knowledge of one foreign language; satisfactory progress in course work; a list of courses applicable to the degree, distinguishing between courses appropriate to the literary component from courses appropriate to the interdisciplinary component; and the submission of a statement outlining the scope and coherence of the interdisciplinary component of the program in relation to the literary component, and noting the relevance of the course work to that program.  At the time of candidacy, students may apply to receive the M.A. in MTL, if they did not receive an M.A. prior to their admission to MTL.

Candidacy Application (Departmental Form)

Interdisciplinary Concentration Form (can be replaced by departmental/program minor form)

Candidacy Application (University Form) 

Candidacy Extension Form

University Oral Examination

The University Oral Examination covers the student’s areas of concentration. this exam is normally taken in the third year of graduate study. It is a two-hour oral examination administered by four faculty members specializing in the student’s areas of concentration, and a chair from another department. The exam is based on a substantial reading list prepared by the student in conjunction with the faculty committee and designed to cover the areas of expertise pertinent to the student’s dissertation project.

Department Scheduling Form

University Orals Examination Form

Orals Checklist 

Sample Oral Field Titles

Sample Orals Reading Lists

Orals Handbook

Orals Info for Faculty 

Dissertation Committee and Prospectus

At the end of the third year, or early in the fourth year, when their dissertation topic has been decided, the student arranges a faculty reading committee. The committee consists of the candidate's principal research advisor and two other members, usually all members of the Academic Council (that is: full, associate, or assistant professors at Stanford). The student and the primary advisor select the members of the dissertation committee. The dissertation committee need not be composed of faculty members who served on the Orals committee, although that is the norm.

Sometimes a scholar who is not a member of the Academic Council or who is a faculty member from outside Stanford may be a member of the reading committee. Such choices should only be made in exceptional cases. An “outside” or non-Academic Council reader may not take the role of primary adviser, who must be a Stanford Academic-Council faculty member and who will work most closely with the student. Please note that the Program does not provide funding for travel expenses for outside committee members.

After completing the University Oral Exam, the student writes the dissertation proposal. The recommended length for the dissertation proposal is 5 pages double-spaced (with a maximum length of 8 pages). It should also contain a full bibliography. Longer proposals are not desirable. Experience shows that by focusing too much on the proposal itself, students frequently delay the start of genuine dissertation work. The proposal should outline the topic, the approach and its significance, and include a list of possible chapters. The emphasis should be on concise, direct expression of the initial argument and major claims. The proposal is an intrinsically provisional document. It should be a text that the student can return to as the dissertation develops, serving as an initial template for abstracts and more complete project descriptions.

This proposal is submitted to the Dissertation Committee and the Program Director along with the approval form (available from the program administrator) by autumn quarter of the fourth year. The form must be signed (or otherwise certified) by all of the Committee members before submission to the Director. The approved form will be submitted to the Program Office and kept in the student’s academic file. Students should be sure to send a digital copy to the Program Administrator.

Dissertation Prospectus Form

Doctoral Dissertation Reading Committee University Form

Dissertation Colloquium

The Dissertation Colloquium takes place after the proposal has been approved and the student has completed one full chapter (usually at the end of the fourth year of study, and no later than the beginning of the fifth). As soon as one chapter has been completed, the student sets up a date and time to meet with the Dissertation Committee to discuss the work accomplished and plans for completing the rest of the dissertation. The Colloquium should be a one-hour session during which the student solicits and receives advice; it is not an exam.

This is a very important milestone, providing an opportunity for the student to strategize with faculty mentors about the direction of the research and to formulate a plan and timeline for completing the dissertation. Therefore, the Colloquium should be scheduled as early as is possible in the dissertation writing process.

In preparation for the Colloquium, the student should meet individually with the faculty on their Committee, who will discuss their concerns and opinions and give suggestions about the student’s work.

Students should prepare to speak briefly (10 minutes maximum) about the dissertation, broadly outlining the project’s goals, scope, and current status. The faculty will ask questions and offer suggestions. Toward the end of the hour, the student can and should pose questions to the faculty.

Dissertation and Defense

Dissertations in Modern Thought and Literature conclude with a two-hour defense. The first hour, during which the Ph.D. candidate gives a thirty-minute presentation of their dissertation, is open to the public. After the presentation and a brief Q&A period, the primary advisor(s) will ask observers to leave.

The second hour of the defense is reserved to the candidate and the Dissertation Committee. A reception follows, open to members of the MTL community and the student’s friends and family.

The defense is intended to provide the Ph.D. candidate detailed feedback about converting the dissertation into a book manuscript. It is a moment of closure and a formal acknowledgement of the momentous occasion. For MTL students, the defense does not fulfill the role of the university oral exam. That milestone is met much earlier, see previous section on the oral exam.

Annual Review

The program of each student must be approved by the student's advisor at the end of each academic year. In connection with this review, the student will complete a year-end report. The report includes a cumulative list of requirements completed, as well as any accomplishments the student wishes to note. Advisors are asked to contact the Program with any particular concerns about the student's progress.

The program and progress of each student must be approved by the Committee-in-Charge at the end of each academic year.

Past Orals Lists

In preparation for their University Oral Examination, some students may wish to view reading lists from previous oral examinations.  To do so, students should consider the academic interests listed for more advanced students and recent alumni and then request specific reading lists from the archives by contacting the MTL office staff.