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Summary of Overall Program Requirements & Structure*:

Note: Students entering the PhD program with an MA in French or a related discipline are eligible to petition the faculty for a two-course reduction in the total number of required courses, so as to proceed to the prospectus exam as early as the fall quarter of the third year. The faculty will make the final determination in this regard at the time of the first and/or second year review.

* See specific program requirements for the CLS students with a home department in French at the bottom of this page.


Students take eighteen courses during their first three years, including at least thirteen courses in the Department of French and Italian. The remaining five elective courses may be selected from the offerings in other departments and programs according to individual interests. (French 403: French and Italian Language Teaching, counts as an elective under the Program’s course requirements). The available French courses cover a variety of periods, media (print and visual cultures), and genres comprising French and Francophone literary and cultural traditions, and expose students to a range of critical and theoretical methodologies. Students may tailor their coursework outside of the French Department so as to take advantage of special concentrations such as the Certificate of Italian Studies and concentrations in African Studies.

Students may tailor their coursework outside the French department so as to take advantage of special concentrations such as the Certificate in Italian Studies and concentrations in African StudiesGender & Sexuality Studies, Critical Theory, and other fields offered through the Graduate School’s Interdisciplinary Cluster Initiative.

Summary of Courses:

Two iterations of French 493

French 493, our introductory theory course, is taught twice (with different content) annually. It is generally offered in the winter and spring quarters, and is conducted in English. The fields of emphasis covered on a rotating basis by this course are: French Post-structuralist Theory, French Feminist Theory, French Post-colonial Theory, French Materialist/Marxist Theory, and French Media Theory. The choice of five fields from which two courses will be drawn each year takes into account faculty leaves and diverse expertise. While the focus of these courses will be on French and Francophone traditions, they may include relevant tests from non-French and Francophone traditions to provide context and lineage. While students will be required and take the two units of French 493 offered in their first year, in subsequent years they will have the option of taking additional iterations of this introductory course with different content as electives

French 495, Practicum in Scholarly Writing and Research

This course, which will be taught every other year, trains students in writing in an academic style by allowing them to develop a term paper and/or in specific research methodologies necessary for their future research.  The course will be offered in the Fall or Winter. In the event that students must take the course in the Winter of their third year, they will be required to take only one seminar and register for one unit of 590 in the fall of that year so as to devote time to researching and preparing their Qualifying/Prospectus Exam.

French 596, Thesis Tutorial

Following the successful completion of the Qualifying/Prospectus Exam in the winter quarter, students advance to candidacy. In the spring quarter, each student registers for French 596 Thesis Tutorial with his/her dissertation director, to begin work on the Prospectus.


FIRST & SECOND YEARS: Progress Reviews and Exams 

First Year Review, end of spring quarter of first year

In the spring quarter of the first year, all students will undergo a first year review by the Department. All graduate faculty members will review the student’s dossier consisting of professor evaluations collected by the DGS, a self-evaluation statement, and a seminar paper submitted by the student. The review aims at identifying areas of strength and weakness, as well as making recommendations for the summer and the second year. At this stage, the faculty will make a determination based on the student’s performance whether s/he should continue into the second year. The DGS will provide the student with an oral and written summary of the Department’s assessment and recommendations.

Theory Exam, taken prior to the Fall of second year

Based on a departmental reading list, this exam addresses the five fields of emphasis in critical theory listed above.

The required 493 courses in Winter and Spring should cover some of the texts on the lists. Students will study remaining parts of the list and prepare for the exam during the summer of their first year. Students can opt out of ten titles.

Each exam will have a committee composed of three faculty: the DGS (ex officio) and, ordinarily, the instructors for that year’s 493 courses, with adjustments being made as necessary. Students should consult with members of the committee to develop areas of focus related to possible questions. The DGS will function as the committee’s Chair.

This is a take-home exam whose questions should address a problem linking a number of the texts the students will have read. Students are given two questions from which they must chose one to answer. The questions will ordinarily be written by that year’s 493 instructors. Students have two days to complete this written portion (providing an answer of approximately 10-15 pages double spaced).

The written exam will be followed by an oral defense before the committee. This oral portion of the exam ideally will take place during the week prior to the beginning of the fall classes in the student’s second year. The written portion is to be scheduled accordingly. Students must perform to the satisfaction of the graduate faculty in order to continue into the second year of the program.

Theory Exam reading list can be downloaded here.

Literature Exam, taken prior to the Fall of the third year

Based on a departmental reading list, this exam focuses of works of French and Francophone literature and visual media. The purpose of this exam is to prepare students for their teaching career since they might be required to teach a broad range of periods and topics.

In consultation with their committee, students will choose 25-30 works from the list.

The exam committee will have three members, chosen by the student. One of the examiners will be the designated Chair. The DGS can be a member of this committee, but does not have to be.

Each of the three members of the committee will provide one question, from which the student will choose two to answer. Each question will cross multiple time periods and genres. The student has four days to complete the written exam. This is followed by an oral defense, conducted before the members of the committee. This oral exam ideally will take place during the week prior to the beginning of the fall classes in the student’s third year. The written portion is to be scheduled accordingly.

Literature Exam reading list can be downloaded here.

Suggested Literature Exam reading list can be downloaded here.


THIRD YEAR: Qualifying/Prospectus Exam and Prospectus:

Qualifying/Prospectus Exam reading list development

After their second year review, students identify an advisor and assemble the other members of a committee whose members will advise them on research for their prospectus and preparation for their candidacy exam. The advisor will chair their prospectus exams (and, under normal circumstances, will go on to direct their dissertation once they have advanced to candidacy).

Following the literature exam, students begin reading extensively in order to devise, in consultation with their advisors, a list of possible topics and problems for the dissertation. During the Fall and Winter quarters of the third year, students are expected to have compiled a working bibliography of primary and secondary works to share with the committee. The bibliography should include critical and primary texts relating to the field of the dissertation broadly conceived; it should not be limited only to those texts the student plans to discuss or cite within the body of the dissertation. These preliminary bibliographies will allow the committee members to help students refine and develop their lists in preparation for the exam. Each list should include approximately 20 items, but the number can vary considerably based on the nature and size of the material.
One list will focus primarily on methodological issues related to the dissertation project (ideally including, but not limited to, the specific methodological approach to be laid out in the prospectus).

The other will concern a corpus of primary texts including (but not limited to) those to be discussed in the projected dissertation.

Qualifying/Prospectus Exam, taken prior to the end of the 3rd year

The committee for this exam consists of three members (chosen by the student), with the advisor serving as Chair.

Students will be asked to respond to two questions, one each by the members of the committee who are not the Chair.

Each exam question is to be answered in approximately ten pages double-spaced in the language of the student’s choice. The entire written exam should therefore amount to approximately twenty pages. A follow-up oral exam takes place after the written part is completed, usually within one week. This exam consists of questions and discussion on topics including but not necessarily limited to those explored in the written exam. The oral exam should not exceed two hours. Students will have one week to complete the written part of the exam. If the student is teaching at the time of the exam, then s/he is allowed ten days.

Students are encouraged to complete this exam prior to the Spring quarter of their third year so that Spring can be spent on the prospectus. However, depending on the students’ fields some may find it necessary to take the exam in the Spring of their third year.

(The exam may be taken during spring break if the student so chooses and receives the consent of his/her committee members. In this case, the oral exam will be scheduled during the first week of the spring quarter.)

There are three possible outcomes of the Qualifying/Prospectus Exam. If the student does not pass the exam on the first try, s/he will be given the opportunity, during the following quarter, to rewrite the section(s) of the exam deemed unsatisfactory. If, however, on the second attempt the results are still unsatisfactory, the student will not pass and may be granted a terminal Master’s degree based on work to date and at the discretion of the faculty.  

Procedures for the Qualifying/Prospectus Exam Administration

  1. The student sets up dates for written and oral exams in consultation with the committee. Once the dates are determined, the student contacts the Graduate Program Assistant (GPA) who will reserve a room and complete the paperwork for The Graduate School.
  2. The Chair of the exam committee solicits questions, gathers them and sends copies to all members of the committee. Once the Chair has all the questions, s/he sends them to the student, giving him/her instructions about the time and date of completion.
  3. The student sends via email his/her answers to the exam committee Chair, who forwards them to the other committee members.
  4. The oral exam must take place within a week of the written exam so that the student does not get too far removed from the mindset of the exam. Only when exceptional circumstances arise might the oral exam be postponed beyond this timeframe. The oral exam must be scheduled during the quarter (between the first and last day of a given quarter; never over breaks). It is the task of the exam committee Chair to pick up the necessary form from the GPA and have it signed by the members of the committee at the end of the exam before returning it to the GPA.

The Prospectus: Definition and Guidelines
Following the successful completion of the Qualifying/Prospectus Exam in the winter quarter, students advance to candidacy. In the spring quarter, each student registers for French 596 Thesis Tutorial with his/her dissertation director, to begin work on the Prospectus. Students are strongly encouraged to complete and defend their prospectus by the end of the spring quarter. The Graduate School requires that students have an approved prospectus by the end of the fourth year of study. Students without an approved prospectus by that point will be placed on academic probation.

The Prospectus (15-25 pages double spaced) is a preliminary description and “road map” of the dissertation. In defining the scope, aims and parts of the project, it enables students to communicate their ideas to others and achieve the focus necessary to begin work on the dissertation itself.

Students are advised to include the following information in the Prospectus (please note that in some cases these categories may provide a useful format for structuring the document itself):

For additional resources concerning the writing of prospectus and examples of past prospectuses from our department, see the Graduate Assistant for access to the graduate files. 

The Prospectus Review:

No later than one quarter following their completion of French 596, students pass a Prospectus Review, which is a meeting with a committee comprised of three members of the faculty (presumably the qualifying exam committee, although exceptions may be allowed in cases in which the prospectus requires the expertise of another faculty member) in which the Prospectus is discussed. The purpose of the meeting is to enable students to present their ideas orally, answer questions, and receive constructive criticism from the committee before work on the dissertation gets under way, as well as allow for dialogue among committee members. The student will be expected to defend their ideas in the Prospectus itself as well as to demonstrate familiarity with works on the bibliography.

The Graduate Committee recommends that the Prospectus Review be scheduled at the time of the qualifying exam. No later than two weeks in advance of the Review, the student circulates to the committee members the Prospectus, which is prepared according to the specific criteria provided by the Department (see above) and includes a bibliography of primary and secondary works. Prior to the meeting, the student will consult with the members of the committee and make any requested revisions to the draft prospectus.

Each year a Department Colloquium will be organized, the express purpose of which will be to highlight the work of those students who successfully passed the Prospectus Review in the previous twelve months. All students are therefore expected to present their Prospectus of subsequent dissertation works-in-progress in a Department Colloquium within one year of their Prospectus Review.

From Prospectus to Dissertation Committee:

While the prospectus committee may in many instances be the same as the dissertation committee, students are free to make changes to their committee as their dissertation takes shape. Students also have the option of including a non-Northwestern faculty member on the prospectus or dissertation committee, providing that the professor consents in writing to serve in this capacity. In all cases committees must comprise at least three members of the NU graduate faculty. After approval of the prospectus, the student should submit the required PhD Prospectus form including the names of the members of the student’s committee through CAESAR. If subsequent changes are made to the dissertation committee, a change of committee form should be obtained from the Graduate Program Assistant (GPA). Prior to the defense of the dissertation, the student should submit the required PhD Final Exam form to TGS through CAESAR.

YEARS 4-6: Progress Assessment and Evaluation:

As students make progress on their writing, they are advised to communicate regularly with each member of the committee, seeking advice and feedback as needed. The Department requires annual meetings with the whole dissertation committee. Directors of committees must send progress reports from these meetings to the DGS by the end of the winter quarter during years 4-6.

Defense and Submission of the Dissertation

Upon completion of the dissertation, students meet with their committees for its defense, in which students respond to questions from the members of their committee, receive recommendations regarding possible publication, as well as any changes or additions they are required to make prior to final submission of the dissertation to The Graduate School.

As the students approach completion of their dissertation, they should schedule a time for their committee to meet, and work with the Graduate Program Assistant to schedule a conference room or meeting space. In order to accommodate the need for any editorial changes the committee might require, students should allow at least six weeks between the date of their defense and the Graduate School’s deadline for final submission of the dissertation.

 PhD with distinction:

The designation “PhD with distinction” is a recognition granted to exceptional research projects. It is completely at the discretion of the dissertation committee members. Any member of the dissertation committee may propose consideration for “distinction” at the conclusion of a successful defense but the committee must be unanimous on the merits of the case. Dissertations that earn the department’s “PhD with distinction” would distinguish themselves by criteria such as:


Good academic standing is determined by the faculty and the DGS. To remain in good standing, in the first two years the student must pass the first and second year reviews; by the end of the third year, the student must pass the qualifying exam; and by the end of the quarter following the student’s completion of French 596 Thesis Tutorial, the student must pass the prospectus review. Subsequently, the student must make progress on the dissertation that is judged satisfactory by the dissertation director. While in coursework students must maintain a 3.7 (A-) grade average in all graduate courses and have no more than two outstanding incompletes on their transcript, unless by special dispensation of the graduate committee. All incomplete work must be completed prior to taking the qualifying exam.


As a condition of candidacy, CLS students are required to take a Translation Exam consisting of one literary passage from French to English and one critical passage from English to French. This exam is administered by the chair of the prospectus exam committee and is taken in the Department. Students are allowed two hours to complete this exam.

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