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College of Arts & Sciences
Department of English Language and Literature

PhD in English - Emphasis in Composition and Rhetoric

Doctoral students in Composition and Rhetoric are expected to take at least 33 hours of coursework and 12 dissertation hours (see “Transfer Credit,” below, for one option for fulfilling six of those hours).  The curriculum synthesizes philosophical, historical, and cultural dimensions of rhetoric through a variety of courses in rhetorical theory and composition pedagogy. The program gives students the flexibility to design their own specialization within the broad field of Composition and Rhetoric and provides them a unique opportunity to draw on the strengths of its core faculty and also of rhetoricians within the Speech Communication faculty.

Specific Requirements*

  • ENGL 790, 791, 890
  • 6 hours from ENGL 792, 793, or 794
  • 6 hours from ENGL 700, 795, 796, 797 or
    courses from Speech Communication, English
    or American Literature or another Composition
    and Rhetoric course with the approval of the student's advisor.
  • 12 hours in an area of specialization approved by student's doctoral committee
  • Admission to doctoral candidacy
  • written comprehensive exams: one in the major field and one in your specialization area
  • oral exam in the major field
  • 12 hours of ENGL 899 (dissertation writing)
  • Reading knowledge of two foreign languages  (satisfied by passing the reading exam in each language) OR extensive knowledge of one foreign language (satisfied by passing a 400-level course in literature, not in translation, with a grade of B or better, or a 500-level course in literature, not in translation, with a grade of C or better). NOTE: You may also fulfill one foreign language requirement by passing both ENGL 702 (Old English) and ENGL 703 (Beowulf and Old English Heroic Verse) with a grade of B or better.
  • minimum of one year's experience teaching English composition at the school or college level
  • completion of dissertation and oral dissertation defense

*The 3-hour 691-692 pedagogy course can count toward total course hours as an elective.

Transfer Credit

If you have had equivalent graduate courses at another institution, you may petition the Graduate Program Committee to transfer up to six hours credit in lieu of courses required for the Ph.D. However, these courses cannot be more than eight years old by the time you plan to graduate. A minimum of eight courses taken at USC is generally required of all students.

Program of Study

By the beginning of your third term, you must, in consultation with your advisor, fill out the Ph.D. Program of Study form and submit it to the Director of Graduate Studies; students will bring this form to the meeting to determine qualification for doctoral candidacy that you should schedule with the Graduate Director and major advisor by the start of the third semester. This form must be on file with the Dean of the Graduate School before you will be cleared for graduation. It will also help you and your advisor direct your progress toward the degree. The Program of Study should be amended periodically to reflect actual courses taken by filing the Adjustment form available through the forms library on the Graduate School’s website.

Admission to Doctoral Candidacy

Admission by the Department of English for graduate study does not mean admission as a candidate in the Composition and Rhetoric Ph.D. program.

Students are admitted to doctoral candidacy on the basis of their record and a meeting with the Director of Graduate Studies and the major adviser, to be held at the beginning of the student’s third term. Prior to this meeting, the Graduate Director will review the student's class grades with the expectation of at least a 3.0 GPA over the course of the first year of study. The student will come to the meeting with a completed Program of Study form and an accompanying statement (5-6pp.) detailing progress toward dissertation and degree thus far and plans for future study and research. In the event of an unsuccessful review, the student will be put on probation, not be admitted to candidacy, and be required to maintain a 3.5 GPA for each of the following two semesters. Additionally, field faculty will meet at the end of the probationary student's second year in order to make a recommendation to the Graduate Director about the student’s future in the program. The Graduate Director will factor this recommendation and the student’s GPA into a decision about whether the probationary student should be admitted to candidacy at the end of the second year and allowed to continue in the program.

Doctoral Committee

No later than the end of your second year, you should notify the Graduate Office that you have assembled a doctoral committee of three or four professors in your areas of specialization by obtaining the necessary signatures and filing a Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form available through the forms library on the Graduate School website.  In consultation with this committee, you must devise and file with the Graduate Office a reading list and tentative body of course work.  This will be the basis of the formal Program of Study, initially submitted as part of the process of admission to doctoral candidacy at the start of the third term in the program. Each committee should consist of three faculty members from the English Department along with one professor from outside the department with no departmental affiliations. At any time, you may change the composition of your committee by advising the Graduate Director and any members removed from the committee (correspondence advising members of their removal should be copied to the Graduate Director) and by revising the aforementioned Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form.

Comprehensive Exams

Doctoral candidates are required to take written comprehensive exams in both composition and rhetoric and the field of specialization by the fall semester of their fourth year in the program but should ideally have taken them by the preceding spring. Questions for the exams are prepared by members of the doctoral committee (and, in the case of some specialization exams, by appropriate faculty in the specialization area).

Questions are based on reading lists for both the major and minor areas.  The major area reading list in rhetoric and composition is updated regularly and is available from Professor John Muckelbauer ( ).  The minor area list is compiled by the candidate and approved by the doctoral committee.  Minor reading lists must be on file in the Graduate Office at the beginning of the semester in which you take the exams.

The 72-hour take-home comprehensive exam will consist of answers to three questions— two from the major area (one in rhetoric and one in composition) and one from the area of specialization. Each response should be no longer than ten pages, meaning that the completed exam should be approximately 30 pages long.

Scheduling of Exams

In the semester you plan to take the comprehensive exams, you must sign up with the Graduate Office during the first week of classes. The exams will be offered once in the fall semester and once in the spring semester (usually in the fourth week of each semester) and will take place over a weekend—i.e., from Friday at noon until Monday at noon. Students will not be allowed to schedule alternative days or times in which to take the written exams.

Grading of the Exam

To pass the general comprehensive examination, you must receive passing grades on both questions from two of your three readers. To receive a pass with distinction, you must receive grades of pass with distinction on both questions from at least two of your three readers. The same grading standards apply for the response to the specialization exam. Should you fail one part of the exam, you will only have to retake that part; if, however, you fail both parts of the exam, you are required to retake the entire exam. You have two opportunities to pass the written exam, and you must retake any failed portion of the exam within one year.

Oral Examination

You must take the oral comprehensive examination within one month of the time you are notified that you have passed the written examination. This exam typically lasts from one to two hours. The oral examiners will be your doctoral committee and one faculty member from outside the department. The exam covers both your major and your minor fields. If you do not pass the oral examination, you must take it again within a year. You have two opportunities to pass this exam.

Prospectus Meeting

Within thirty days of passing the oral exam, doctoral candidates should submit and defend a dissertation prospectus laying out the significance, scope, research method, and theoretical approach to the dissertation topic, along with chapter summaries, and a timetable for completion.

Students should obtain the prospectus defense form from the Graduate English Office, bring it to the prospectus meeting, and obtain the necessary signatures at the end of the meeting. The prospectus defense form together with a brief description of the project should be filed with the Graduate English Office as soon as possible after the meeting.

The purpose of the prospectus defense is to gain advice and approval from your full dissertation committee (dissertation director, at least two specialists in your research area or areas, and one faculty member from outside the department). Approval of the prospectus constitutes an agreement that committee members will not object to the finished dissertation if it fulfills the basic plan, methods, and theoretical approach outlined initially. Of course, committee members may object to the dissertation on other grounds, such as quality of writing, effectiveness of argument, sufficiency of documentation, and so forth. The director of your dissertation will supervise your 12 hours of ENGL 899.


Your dissertation committee is your doctoral committee in its final form; it includes your dissertation director, at least two specialists in your research area or areas, and one faculty member from an outside department. (English department faculty affiliated with other programs or with joint appointments cannot serve as outside readers.) No later than the end of your second year, you should notify the Graduate Director that you have filed a Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form available through the forms library on the Graduate School website.   At any time, you may change the composition of your committee by advising the Graduate Director and any members removed from the committee (correspondence advising members of their removal should be copied to the Graduate Director) and by revising the aforementioned Doctoral Committee Appointment Request form. The dissertation must be defended orally before the dissertation committee. At least two weeks before the defense is to be held, you must submit the dissertation in its final form to the director and the rest of the committee. Be sure to consult the Graduate School for current requirements regarding the format of the dissertation as well as for information about electronic submission of the dissertation to the Graduate School:


Applicants who apply prior the first deadline (December 15), are admitted to this PhD program, and have completed 18 hours of graduate English course work will be considered for a Graduate Teaching Assistantship ('GTA'). Potentially renewable for four consecutive years, the Teaching Assistantship comes with a competitive stipend (currently $12,800 for 3 classes per academic year), in-state tuition status, and a tuition supplement.

Students awarded an assistantship by the Department of English are expected to

  • carry no incompletes;
  • earn no more than one grade below B during their academic career;
  • perform assigned duties in a satisfactory manner;
  • maintain a GPA of 3.5; and
  • make steady progress toward the degree.

Professional Opportunities at the University of South Carolina

  • Opportunities to present papers at conferences sponsored by USC graduate student organizations and by affiliated programs such as Women's and Gender Studies.
  • Opportunities for financial support to fund paper presentations at other local, regional, national, or international conferences.
  • Opportunities to teach undergraduate literature and writing courses.
  • Eligibility for recognition and awards from The Graduate School (especially for presentations at Graduate Student Day).
  • Opportunities for editorial or other career-advancing internships within the university or outside it.
  • Guidance through the job search by an expert faculty committee, including CV workshops, presentation strategies, and mock interviews.
  • Opportunity to apply for lucrative year-long Bilinski Dissertation Fellowship ( )

For more information on Professional Development and Graduate Student Placement, see the following webpages: