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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 Exam and Prospectus:


Qualifying Exam

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 qualifying exam (and, under normal circumstances, will go on to direct their dissertation once they have advanced to candidacy).

After the completion of their course work and Literature exam, students begin researching their prospectus, working closely with their dissertation director and seeking advice from other members of the dissertation committee as needed. The objective of the Qualifying Exam is twofold: in addition to asking students to outline the topic, primary objectives, and preliminary claims of the dissertation in a draft prospectus, this exam requires students to identify a research field and show their positioning within it. They will be given the opportunity to demonstrate their familiarity with its literature, scholarship and relevant debates. The Qualifying Exam takes place no later than the spring quarter of their third year and consists of:

  1. A complete draft of their prospectus (12-15 pages). This document is not the final prospectus but a preliminary iteration of their research project. In most cases, it should include an overview of the research questions and main argument, an indication of the scholarly/critical interventions, an explanation of the methodology and the research that will be required to complete the project, and a breakdown of chapters (see guidelines below). To prepare this document, students should explore their field broadly so they understand why they are doing the project and how they are contributing to ongoing debates within the field or opening up new ones.
  2. In preparing for this exam, students will become familiar with a range of literary or cinematic works related to their topic and specific dissertation corpus. Based on the research conducted, students should constitute two lists: one of primary sources (10-15), which is the corpus they have explored in preparation for the prospectus; and a second list of at least 30 secondary and theoretical sources (not only books) around which they build their critical and conceptual apparatus.

Once the student is ready for the exam, they will contact members of the committee and set up an exam time and date and share with them all the materials at least two weeks in advance of this date.

During the exam, faculty will consider the feasibility of the project, ask questions about the project’s conceptual framework and its place in the field, a rationale for the selected corpus, and discuss the lists. The student will be expected to defend the ideas in the proposal itself as well as to demonstrate familiarity with works on the bibliography.

Once the project is approved, the faculty might make further bibliographical and conceptual suggestions for the final prospectus.

There are three possible outcomes of the Qualifying Exam. If the student does not pass the exam on the first try, they will be given the opportunity, during the following quarter, to rework the research. 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.  

Following the successful completion of the Qualifying Exam, students will register for 596 with their advisor and work to finalize the prospectus early in the fall of their fourth year. 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 Guidelines:

The following guidelines have been devised to assist students in composing both the Prospectus draft (Qualifying Exam) and the final Prospectus. These elements may be useful 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. The student circulates to the committee members the Prospectus (12-15 pages). This committee is presumably the qualifying exam committee, but additional faculty members may be included, or committee members may be changed as needed. Committee members will have two weeks to review the prospectus. Based on the extent of revisions between the draft prospectus and the final prospectus, the committee will determine whether an in-person defense will be appropriate. In cases where the final prospectus does not depart significantly from the draft version of the qualifying exam, a defense may be waived. The student will be notified of the committee’s decision by the chair of the committee and members will provide feedback to the student. The in-person oral defense will be scheduled within two weeks of the committee’s decision.  The purpose of an in-person meeting is to enable students to present and explain the evolution of their ideas, answer questions, and receive constructive criticism from the committee before work on the dissertation gets under way.

Students apply in the fall of their 4th year for at least one fellowship/grant based on their project. They develop this application in consultation with their dissertation director and the graduate committee.

Each year a Department Colloquium is organized, 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 or 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 a member of the student’s committee and in the Department. Students are allowed two hours to complete this exam. This requirement may be waived if the student has already demonstrated the required level of proficiency through at least one graduate seminar taught in French.