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4. PhD Milestones

Built into the PhD program in Comparative Literature is a number of Milestones each student must complete. The Third Term Review is designed to allow students to share their experiences in the graduate program, receive feedback on their coursework and skills, and plan next steps. The Preliminary Examination is the first step in defining a field for research and consists of a reading list and rationale submitted by the student to a committee which may form the basis for the student’s doctoral dissertation committee. The Topics Paper expands on a topic that is relevant to the student’s research interests.  The Preliminary Exam and the Topics Paper are designed to provide opportunities for the student to synthesize course work, to acquire knowledge in areas that may not be studied in courses, and to begin formulating a dissertation topic. A Prospectus detailing the dissertation project is the final step before writing the dissertation itself.  The Dissertation Defense is scheduled through Rackham when the student has completed the dissertation.  

4.1 Scheduling Milestone Meetings

Milestone meetings are usually held in the Comparative Literature Library in 2021C Tisch Hall, which can be reserved through the SSvC once all the faculty have agreed to exact dates. The SSvC will also help students submit relevant paperwork. While the DGS and the SSvC will help send reminders of upcoming milestones, and help students interpret expectations of the department and the graduate school, it is primarily the student’s responsibility to maintain reasonable and regular contact with faculty members on their committees and to give sufficient advance notice to their committee about scheduling dates. If such contact is not maintained, or if difficulties of any other kind arise, the student and/or the committee members should alert the DGS.  Students should keep the DGS informed of their plans to schedule meetings for the Preliminary Examination, Topics Paper, Prospectus, and the Dissertation Defense.  

4.2 Third Term Review

Timing:  The third term review is scheduled in October of the second year of graduate study.

Format:  The review is a 45-minute conversation with the student, during which the committee gathers information about the student’s goals, assesses those goals, and provides guidance about the best steps to achieve them. The committee may offer an assessment of the student’s adjustment to graduate school and give advice about combining scholarship and teaching. The primary goal of the review is to provide general academic counseling to students and broaden the acquaintance of faculty and students with each other.  Rather than giving detailed feedback on specific areas of research, the committee’s role is to suggest resources and strategies for students to develop their interests before forming more specialized faculty committees for the Preliminary Examination. 


The Committee: The committee consists of the DGS and two faculty members in Comparative Literature, appointed by the Department Chair. The DGS chairs the committee.

Submission: Students are asked to provide the committee with a small sample of their best work (one or two unrevised papers from the first year of course work). They also submit a 2-page statement outlining their interests and future goals. Students submit their written materials to the Student Services Coordinator in mid-September. The committee reviews these materials along with the student’s transcript and the evaluations submitted by the student’s instructors.

Evaluation: At the conclusion of the review, the committee goes over next steps with respect to the process for preliminary examination preparation using the prelim guidelines as a reference; suggestions and procedures for future milestones are then discussed in detail in COMPLIT601/698.  Within two weeks of the Third Term Review, the DGS provides written feedback to each student, detailing the findings of the committee and their advice. The review is not meant to replace either one-on-one mentoring or individual faculty evaluations.  

4.3 Preliminary Examination

Timing:  This exam is taken in early September of the fall term of the student’s third year of graduate school, before Rackham’s deadline for candidacy.  To begin preparation, students must take COMPLIT 601/COMPLIT 698 in the second year. The program requirement of two foreign languages at the advanced level must be met before a student takes the exam.

Click HERE for complete Preliminary Guidelines

4.4 Topics Paper

Timing:  Following up on the Preliminary Examination in September, students will develop ideas for the Topics Paper and participate in a brownbag coordinated by the DGS in November to discuss plans for researching and drafting the Topics Paper.  The paper is completed during the term following the Preliminary Examination and must be scheduled for discussion by the committee no later than the end of the student’s third year of graduate studies. 


The student, in close consultation with members of the committee, submits a paper of not less than 35 pages. The focus should be on researching a topic and/or exploring a methodology that will lead to the formulation of a dissertation project. The paper is scheduled for oral discussion in a one-hour meeting with the student’s committee.


The Committee:  The student forms a committee of three faculty members (one of whom is the chair).  At least one of the three faculty members of the committee shall hold an appointment in Comparative Literature. The committee may or may not be the same as the student’s Preliminary Examination Committee. 

Scheduling:  Students should confer with their committee chair no later than February to discuss the timeline for submitting the Topics Paper.  Students obtain approval from their committee chair and the DGS to schedule the committee meeting to discuss the Topics Paper.  Students then contact the Student Services Coordinator, to confirm the date and time for the Topics Paper meeting and to reserve the Comp Lit Library. 

Submission: The student should obtain approval from the committee chair to circulate a draft of the Topics Paper for feedback from the rest of the committee, before making final revisions and scheduling the official meeting to discuss the Topics Paper. At least two weeks before the scheduled discussion, the student must submit one copy of the Topics Paper to each committee member, the DGS and an electronic copy to the SSvC.

Evaluation: The Topics Paper is graded as High Pass, Pass, or Fail. The objective of the committee meeting to discuss the Topics Paper is to explore issues arising from the paper and to help the student define a dissertation topic. Within one week after the meeting, the chair of the committee will give the Student Services Coordinator a one-page summary of the committee’s comments.  The SSvC will send a copy of the comments to the DGS and place a copy of the approved Topics Paper in the student’s file. If the paper and/or the discussion fail to meet these objectives, the student may be asked to revise the paper and to schedule a second discussion.

Responsibilities of the student and the Topics Paper Committee:

After passing the Preliminary Examination, it is important for the student to stay in regular contact (at least monthly) with the Chair of the Topics Paper Committee and to keep the entire committee informed of the process and timeline for completing the Topics Paper, to be submitted by April or (with permission of the committee chair) no later than the end of the third year of graduate studies.

The committee meeting may be arranged to accommodate the schedule of faculty members.  In most cases, faculty members on leave should be willing to participate in the meeting.  If faculty members are on leave locally, they should expect to attend the meeting in person; if they are away from campus, participation remotely may be arranged.  It is the responsibility of the student to coordinate the time and place of the committee meeting to discuss the Topics Paper and inform the SSvC of the date. The student must also plan and make arrangements for any remote participation by a committee member.

If conflicts arise between the student and members of his or her committee, or if the student is having difficulty garnering consistent participation from any member or advisor, the student is encouraged to address these concerns to the DGS, who will help resolve the issue.

The Chair of the Topics Paper Committee takes responsibility for the following:

  • Meet as needed with the student to discuss drafts of the Topics Paper
  • Advise the student when the paper is ready for submission to the committee
  • Keep the DGS informed of problems or changes in the student’s progress
  • Resolve difficulties that may arise when, for instance, a student receives conflicting advice from different committee members
  • Guide an hour-long oral discussion about the paper with the student and the committee
  • Submit a written report to the student and the DGS within one week after the meeting
  • Represent the committee in its official communications with the DGS concerning the student’s performance
  • Meet individually with the student after the approval of the Topics Paper to discuss next steps toward the Prospectus

The responsibilities of other members of the Topics Paper committee are as follows:

  • Confer as needed with the student to discuss drafts of the Topics Paper
  • Read the final version of the Topics Paper before the committee meeting  
  • Participate in the hour-long discussion with the student and the committee
  • Approve the written summary of the meeting composed by the committee chair
  • Give the student written comments on the paper either before the meeting or within one week after the meeting

Timeline for the Topics Paper

October: After successful completion of your Preliminary Examination in September, consult individually with members of your Prelim Committee and/or other faculty members to follow up on ideas for the Topics Paper.

November: Attend informational meeting on the Topics Paper.  This Brownbag is coordinated by the DGS, who will review various approaches to writing the Topics Paper, and invite several Comp Lit students who have completed the Topics Paper to share their experiences. 

December: Notify the DGS about the configuration of your Topics Paper committee, no later than the last day of classes in the fall term. You will need to identify a committee chair and two faculty members (at least one from Comparative Literature) and confirm via email that they are willing and able to serve in this capacity during the next semester. 

January: Submit a proposal for the Topics Paper to your committee chair for approval by the end of this month.  The proposal should (at the very least) consist of a 1-page description of your topic and a preliminary bibliography.

February and March: Meet regularly with your committee chair to discuss your progress on the Topics Paper and to decide when you are ready to circulate a draft to the rest of the committee. Set up individual meetings with other committee members as needed, and coordinate with the whole committee about scheduling a date for the Topics Paper Meeting. 

April: Notify the SSvC no later than April 1 that you have scheduled a date and reserved the Comp Lit library for the Topics Paper Meeting. Confirm with your committee chair that your final Topics Paper is ready to circulate to the rest of the committee, at least two weeks before the date of the Topics Paper Meeting.

4.5 Prospectus

Timing: The Prospectus should be completed at the beginning of the fourth year of graduate study and defended before the entire Dissertation Committee by December 15. A student who fails to submit and defend the Prospectus within one year of the Topics Paper Defense will no longer be considered to be making satisfactory academic progress.

Format:  The Prospectus is a document between 10-20 double-spaced pages, defining the subject, central questions, and methodological approach proposed for the dissertation, within the context of a survey of previous work on that question. The Prospectus provides a clear sense of how the dissertation will make an original contribution to scholarship, should include a chapter breakdown with paragraph-length summaries of each chapter, includes a selected bibliography of theoretical materials and primary and secondary sources. The Prospectus is scheduled for oral discussion in a one-hour meeting with the committee.


Committee:  The student forms a committee of four or five faculty members from Comparative Literature and/or any other department at the University of Michigan.  One faculty member will be designated dissertation chair (under special circumstances it is possible to designate co-chairs). Requirements and guidelines for the formation of the dissertation committee, including circumstances in which designating co-chairs may be appropriate, can be found on the Rackham websitePlease note: at least one of the faculty members of the committee shall hold an appointment in Comparative Literature, though the chair(s) of the committee need not. Questions about the formation of the committee can be addressed to the DGS. The student completes the Dissertation Committee Worksheet , submits the worksheet to the SSvC for filing the committee with Rackham, and obtains approval from the DGS prior to scheduling a committee meeting for discussion of the Prospectus.

Scheduling: The student works in close consultation with the committee chair, who will determine when a draft of the Prospectus is ready to circulate to the rest of the committee for individual feedback, and when the student is ready to schedule a one-hour committee meeting to approve the final Prospectus. Students then contact the SSvC to confirm the date and time of the Prospectus meeting and reserve the CompLit Library.

Submission: At least two weeks before the scheduled discussion, the student must submit the prospectus in its final form to all committee members and the DGS, as well as an electronic copy to the SSvC. Students must confirm the date/time of the Prospectus meeting and reserve the Comp. Lit. Library with the SSvC.  After the meeting, a copy of the approved prospectus will be placed in the student’s file.

Evaluation: The Prospectus gives the structure for beginning the dissertation and helps make this project concrete in terms of ideas, form, and time. The objective of the Prospectus discussion is to confirm that the student has formulated a coherent topic and outlined a viable plan for dissertation research. If either the Prospectus or the discussion fails to meet these objectives, the student may be asked to revise the Prospectus and schedule a second discussion with the committee.  Within one week after the Prospectus defense, the chair of the committee will give the SSvC a brief summary of the committee’s comments. The student receives a copy of the report, a copy is sent to the DGS, and a copy remains in the student’s file.

Responsibilities of the student and the Prospectus Committee:

The student should stay in regular contact (at least monthly) with the committee chair and confer with the chair about the role of other members on the committee. “Contact” can be written correspondence, over the telephone, or in person, and it is the student’s responsibility to maintain consistent contact with the committee chair and keep him or her apprised of progress or setbacks. In the event that a committee chair proves unavailable or unresponsive, the student should address the issue to the DGS, who will contact the committee chair directly and assess whether adjustments to the Prospectus Committee may be necessary. It is also the responsibility of the student to coordinate the time and place of the committee meeting to discuss the Prospectus. The Prospectus meeting may be arranged to accommodate the schedule of faculty members who are away from campus.  In most cases, faculty members on leave should be willing to participate in the meeting. If faculty members are on leave locally, they should expect to attend the meeting in person; if faculty are out of town, it is the student’s responsibility to arrange for their remote participation via Blue Jeans through Instructional Support Services (ISS).

Drafting the Prospectus:  The Prospectus should include a statement of the major arguments and materials the student will deal with, an effort to delineate the project in relation to recent theoretical and critical developments in relevant fields, and a chapter plan with paragraph-length summaries of each chapter. Also, a selected bibliography should be attached (including what was already read and what is intended to be read) with full citational apparatus. Samples of the Prospectus can be accessed on U-M Box.

Many students find it hard to be decisive about the shape of a dissertation until they are well into the writing; you may need to resign yourself to speculating about some aspects of the project. You should see whatever difficulties you have in writing your prospectus as diagnostic of the work you have yet to do in planning your dissertation: if you are having trouble articulating the topic, you probably need to think it through more thoroughly; if you are uncomfortable with your rationale for the project, perhaps you need to do more research on previous approaches; if you have trouble summarizing your chapters, perhaps you need to spend some time on the organization of the dissertation or the content of individual chapters.

Always talk with your dissertation director about what he/she is looking for in a prospectus.  A prospectus differs from discipline to discipline, and within a discipline, from professor to professor. Since committee members for dissertations in Comparative Literature often have different areas of expertise, it is important for your prospectus to be as clear as possible without assuming that your reader will be familiar with highly specialized scholarly debates or unusual terminology.  Your prospectus should explain why your project is important, interesting, and relevant to broad concerns.  Here are seven general questions to ask yourself as you are drafting your prospectus:

What is my title? The title (which may change throughout the writing process) should accurately reflect what your dissertation is about, not just in terms of topic but in terms of a research problem.  Think of the title as a road map, for yourself as you write the prospectus and then the dissertation, as well as for committees considering you for a fellowship or employment.

What is my problem? Define the research problem to which your dissertation is a response. This is not the same as a “topic.”  A topic is a broad field, a theme. A problem is a precise issue within that topic area.

So what?  What is at stake in your research problem?  What are the implications of this problem?  Why is this something important to study? Do not think of you dissertation as “exploring” a problem or, worse, a topic. Preliminary research explores. A dissertation asserts and argues.

What is my method? How will you approach this problem and try to solve it?  It will help if you mention other scholars’ work on which you are building, and, if applicable, to which your own project is a response.

What is my structure? It is very important to have a mini-chapter outline with a brief statement of the work you think each chapter will do in the big picture of the dissertation.  This is different from simply describing the content of the chapter.  Think of the structure as a trajectory, a narrative that gives a feeling of connection between one chapter and the next, a connection controlled by your argument.

What have I read? Consider the books and articles you have learned from or consulted in order to construct this project.  Include a selected bibliography, not only of works cited in your prospectus but of other readings that have been useful to you so far.

What is my schedule? Make a timeline for your dissertation, break it down by semester, and review it with your committee during the discussion of the prospectus.  For your own purposes, the ability to break it down month-by-month will help a lot as well. 

4.6 Dissertation Defense

Timing: The doctoral dissertation is usually completed during the sixth year.  The student confers with the committee chair about the timeline for scheduling a defense, and the chair will confirm with the committee when the student is ready to schedule a date for a two-hour oral defense. The defense should be scheduled during the final term of enrollment, leaving enough time for recommended or required revisions of the dissertation and abstract and final submission of the approved dissertation in accordance with Rackham’s Doctoral Degree Deadlines .

Format: The student defends the dissertation in a two-hour oral defense.  The dissertation must be formatted to meet the standards of Rackham Academic Records and Dissertations.  Rackham’s Abstract and Dissertation Formatting Guidelines are available online.

Students are also urged to consult with the staff of the Scholarspace at the Graduate Library, which offers tutorials, template assistance, guides, and resources for dissertation preparation. Rackham Doctoral Degree Resources will also give you valuable information.


Committee. The Department requires a committee composed of five faculty members, at least one of whom must be a faculty member with a joint appointment in Comparative Literature.  The final Dissertation Committee Form must be filed at Rackham at least six months before the dissertation defense.

Scheduling: The student works in close consultation with the committee chair, who will determine when dissertation chapters are ready to circulate to other members of the committee for feedback and approval.  The chair will also confirm with the committee when the student is ready to schedule a dissertation defense.  During the final six months when you are completing your dissertation, it is especially important to stay in regular contact with all committee members to keep them informed about your projected timeline, making sure you give them enough time to respond to your work and to agree on an acceptable date and time for you to defend your dissertation. Please note that all students preparing to defend must either register online to attend a group pre-defense meeting at Rackham or choose the remote option. Students must also contact the SSvC to confirm the date and time for scheduling the final defense and to reserve the CompLit Library.

Submission and Evaluation.  A complete copy of the dissertation (with abstract) must be submitted to all committee members at least 10 business days before the day of the oral defense.  Procedures for the dissertation defense are coordinated through the Rackham Graduate School. Rackham Doctoral Degree Resources is helpful in navigating the Rackham requirements.  For more information about preparing the dissertation (including responsibilities of committee members and final steps after the dissertation defense), see Rackham’s Dissertation Handbook.

Dissertation Printing/Binding. Upon completion of revisions, a final electronic copy of the dissertation should be delivered to the SSvC via email or U-M Box upload. The dissertation will then be sent out to be printed, bound and returned to the department for reserve in the Complit Library.