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Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC)

Graduate Programs - PhD Procedures

Students entering the PhD program will be assigned a faculty Adviser who will supervise the student's program until the Candidacy Examinations in the 4th year of study have been completed. Sometimes a student's developing interests may recommend a change of Adviser, but for the most part students will work with their Advisers until recruiting a dissertation Supervisor. Students should consult their Adviser as often as necessary, but at least once per semester. A detailed discussion of the general procedures of the PhD Program follows, which are also summarized in a preferred timeline.  Please note, however, that specific programs may have additional requirements not described here. 


Students in the PhD program are required to take twenty course units (20 c.u.). Students usually take four graded courses a semester, but may audit or register for five courses, with permission of the Graduate Group Chair and the School of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Graduate Studies. During the second and third years, when students are teaching (see below), they typically take three graded courses a semester. Students should complete course work by the end of their third year of study, but may do so earlier if transferring courses from a previous MA program of study, or later, if they go abroad for field work or advanced language study. 


Qualifying Examinations determine whether students may proceed with the PhD. They are administered in the 4th semester at a fixed time for all students in a cohort. Qualifying Exams in most fields (Mesopotamian Civilization, Egyptology, Biblical Studies, Hebrew Literature & Jewish Tradition, and Arabic & Hebrew Literatures) will consist of no more than four exams, with at least one being a language exam. 

Qualifying Exams in Arabic and Islamic Studies will consist of three parts. One exam will focus on Arabic Language and Its History. The two remaining exams will be selected from two of the following three groups: 



  • Pre-modern Arabic Literature
  • Modern Arabic Literature


  • Pre-modern Middle East history
  • Modern Middle East history


  • Islamic thought

Students must select their exam fields and draw up their reading lists in consultation with their Advisers. Results of the Qualifying Examinations will be conveyed to students within two weeks. Qualifying Exams are PASS or FAIL. 


If a student passes the Qualifying Exams, he/she may continue on to the PhD and will be required to take an MA, with a thesis or two revised class papers. Students will have 12 cu’s by the end of the 4th semester and can be awarded the MA in May.  Students are required to complete the MA no later than the summer between their 4th and 5th semesters. 

If a student fails the Qualifying Exams, he/she may take a terminal MA. The terminal MA requires that a student pass one foreign language examination and submit a thesis or two revised class papers. Students may register for MA Thesis Preparation for two semesters at substantially reduced tuition. 


In addition to mastering the languages in which the primary sources of NELC's PhD programs are written, students are required to pass examinations demonstrating competence in reading scholarly research in two modern languages. Competence is defined as the ability to sight-translate a previously unseen passage(s), with the help of a dictionary, into acceptable English within a specified time. The length of the passage and the time limit may vary according to the language involved. The languages are typically French and German, but the specific languages required are determined by NELC’s individual programs. The examinations must be administered by the Graduate Group or, for certain languages, under other auspices approved by the Graduate Group. 

Incoming students who do not yet know the modern languages required by their program are encouraged to use the summer before matriculating to study at least one of them. For PhD students who have completed a year of study, the Graduate Division of Arts and Sciences (GAS) offers reading comprehension courses at no cost in French, German and several other languages during the first summer session. Enrollment is limited and students must sign up by a late Spring deadline. However, it is NELC's exam, not the final exam in those courses, that determines whether the student has met the requirement. 

Students must pass one foreign language proficiency examination by the beginning of the 3rd semester and one by the beginning of the 5th semester. If they fail to do so, they could be prohibited from registering and their Fellowship support can be suspended. If a student repeatedly fails to pass research language examinations, the Graduate Group may drop him/her from the program for insufficient progress to degree. 


Teaching is integral to the PhD program. Students typically get training and practice in pedagogy in a four-semester rotation during their second and third years. In most cases students will be assigned as Teaching Assistants in large lecture classes, but may on occasion serve as Research Assistants for a maximum of two semesters. The four semester teaching rotation may be interrupted or shifted if, for example, students go abroad for fieldwork or programs of language-study. 

Students teaching for the first time are required to participate in a three-day workshop on teaching and learning, normally held in the Fall just before classes begin. Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), which supports teaching with a wide variety of programs and resources, conducts the workshop. Student teachers are encouraged to consult CTL’s website.


Upon completion of twenty course-units students must pass Candidacy Examinations, demonstrating a broad knowledge of the history, languages, literatures and culture of their area(s) of concentration. 

The Graduate Group’s different subfields have different exam formats and expectations. For example, in most fields, the Candidacy Exams are tailored to individual students, but normally consist of 3-5 exams (and preliminary dissertation proposal) administered over a period not to exceed two weeks. 

In Arabic and Islamic studies, Candidacy Exams consist of three fields: two to be set in conjunction with the graduate adviser, and one with another member of the Graduate Group in NELC. Reading lists will be available for each of the fields selected. Exams are "open-book," and are administered individually and electronically. The time allowed for completion of each of the exams is a period between a Thursday evening and a Tuesday morning, with all three exams to be completed within a two month period. 

Students should meet with their Adviser to determine the subjects in which they will be examined and who will write the exams. Once these are set, students must submit a Candidacy Examinations Application to the Graduate Group Chair to take the Candidacy Exams. 

One week after the results of the Candidacy Exams have been announced students will meet with their examiners for an oral continuation of the examination. The oral exam will last an hour or so and is intended to give examiners the opportunity to probe responses to the written questions or clarify any problems raised. Examiners will convey the final results of the Candidacy Exams to the student at the conclusion of the oral exam. Candidacy Exams are PASS or FAIL. If a student fails the Candidacy Exams, the Graduate Group will determine whether he/she may retake the Exams or will be dropped from the program. 

Note: University-wide rules stipulate that students must be given feedback within one month. 

Students advance to Candidacy upon the successful completion of their examinations. 

Note: University-wide rules stipulate that the maximum time limit for a student to advance to Candidacy is five years, after which the student will be dropped.



In order for the Graduate Group to keep abreast of students' progress once they have completed their coursework, the Graduate Division requires students who have completed their Candidacy Examinations to submit a  progress report by November 15 each year. 

The Graduate Division records the report and forwards it to faculty Advisers and the Graduate Group Chair for evaluation. The Graduate Group will notify students of any deficiencies or problems by the middle of January. 


Students embark on dissertation research only after admission to Candidacy, but in practice students ought to begin thinking about potential dissertation research topics after passing the Qualifying Exams. After identifying a viable topic and recruiting an appropriate dissertation Supervisor from among NELC’s Graduate Group faculty to guide the research, the Candidate prepares a dissertation proposal, completing a draft within three or four months. 

After a semi-final draft of the proposal has been written, the Supervisor, in consultation with the student, will ask at least two other faculty to serve on the student's dissertation Committee. They will be involved in the student's final draft, helping him/her examine issues from a variety of perspectives. Committee members are normally members of the NELC’s Graduate Group but, if appropriate, they may be drawn from other Graduate Groups or from other universities, with the approval of the Graduate Group Chair. 

Once a student’s Committee has approved the proposal, he or she will present it to the Graduate Group for discussion. Proposals are usually circulated by email, but may be discussed at faculty meetings, usually held the last Friday of each month during the Academic Year. The proposal must be approved no later than end of the 8th semester. 

Once the proposal has been approved, the Candidate will be informed and may proceed officially with dissertation research (aka ‘ABD status’). Minor changes may be made in the proposal with permission of the Supervisor but the Candidate may not deviate significantly from the approved proposal without submitting a new proposal for approval. 


PhD Candidates may opt to make a public presentation on their dissertation research in their 9th or 10th semester. Presentations will normally be scheduled during the Reading Days at the end of the semester. The Graduate Group see such a presentation as an opportunity for the students to get constructive feedback from a wide rage of Graduate Group faculty, with varying research interests, at an early stage in their research. Such feedback will hopefully help refine research objectives and methodologies. The presentation is really an opportunity for a collegial discussion of the research being pursued. After consulting with his or her Supervisor, the student should request the Graduate Group Chair to schedule a forum for this oral presentation. 


It is expected that all written submissions will be lucid and will follow a style appropriate to the discipline. Students may ask their Adviser to recommend a particular style which lends itself to dissertations in that field. The Candidate is also responsible for obtaining from The Graduate Division instructions concerning the proper format for the dissertation. These should be followed in any draft presented to the Supervisor or Committee. During this period in the candidate's graduate career, the student remains responsible for keeping informed of all changes in regulations and schedules issued by NELC’s Graduate Group and Graduate Arts and Sciences.

Students who have difficulties in expressing their thoughts clearly ought to consult with the Marks Family Writing Center.

No one procedure is suggested or recommended for successful dissertation writing. Usually drafts of chapters or sections are submitted first to the Supervisor. Once the Supervisor is satisfied, it is forwarded to the Committee. It is not uncommon for other committee members to suggest additional changes. Should a conflict arise between members of the Committee regarding certain research issues, it is the responsibility of the Supervisor to mediate the conflict and give direction to the Candidate. If conflict persists, the Graduate Group faculty will be responsible for the resolution of the conflict. The Candidate is responsible for maintaining close contact with his or her Supervisor throughout the research and writing process. In addition, the candidate is required to submit an annual Dissertation Progress Report to the Grafuate School detailing his or her progress. The report will be shared with the Committee and the Graduate Group Chair. 


Within the first two weeks of the semester in which a PhD Candidate expects to graduate, he/she shall submit the final draft of the dissertation to the Supervisor and Committee. This draft must be in proper order and complete except for the indices (if any), which need not be supplied until after a successful defense. At the same time the candidate must apply to The Graduate Division for a degree and make certain that he or she has fulfilled all the requirements. 

After the Committee has read and approved the final draft, the Supervisor will request the Graduate Group Chair to schedule a Dissertation Defense. Defenses are held only during the Academic Year, which officially ends with Commencement in mid-May. Two copies of the draft must be submitted to the NELC Office at least three weeks prior to the scheduled defense, so that there is ample time for the Graduate Group faculty dissertation to read it over. The defense is held before the entire Graduate Group and such invited guests or other members of the university community as the Graduate Group Chair may invite, including graduate students. If the defense is successful, the dissertation may be accepted as submitted or it may be accepted subject to certain minor corrections or major revisions. The needed corrections and revisions shall be completed to the satisfaction of the Candidate's Committee without necessitating a review by the entire Graduate Group. The Candidate’s Supervisor will inform the Graduate Group Chair that the Committee has approved the dissertation. 

If the defense is not successful, the Candidate will be informed either that the dissertation may be resubmitted for another defense after major revisions are made or that the rejection is final. 

If the defense is successful, the Graduate Group Chair will designate a second date for submission to the candidate's dissertation Supervisor of two copies of the final version of the dissertation together with indices. After the final version is checked by the Supervisor to see that it is in proper form, it will be signed by the dissertation Supervisor and the Graduate Group chair and then returned to the candidate for submission to the Graduate School. 

NELC’s Graduate Group is in compliance with the University’s general rules and regulations regarding graduate education

Should discrepancies arise, the University’s rules and regulations supersede the Graduate Group’s rules and procedures.