Requirements for the PhD in Linguistics

To supplement the information contained in this summary, consult the Graduate Student Handbook. In addition, PhD students are strongly urged to maintain a personal copy of the PhD Record of Progress and to meet annually with their graduate advisors to check that personal record against the record maintained in the student's PhD file in the Department office.

Time to Degree


PhD students are expected to complete all degree requirements within six years from the semester in which they are admitted and begin course work in the doctoral program. If you fail to complete the degree in this six-year period, you may be dismissed from their program with the concurrence of your major advisor and/or appropriate departmental personnel. To continue, you must file a petition for an extension of the time limit with the Dean of the Graduate School. Such petitions must be endorsed by your thesis advisor and may be granted for up to one year. According to Linguistics departmental policy, if 7 calendar years have elapsed since your matriculation in the program, the entire faculty must vote to approve any petition for extension that you submit to the Graduate School.

Course Requirements

The PhD requires a total of 30 hours (10 courses) at the 6000 level or above, of which 21 hours (7 courses) must be in LING. Required courses account for 12 of the total 30 credit hours. The required courses are as follows:

  1. LING 6450 (Syntactic Analysis)
  2. LING 7100 (Field Methods I)
  3. Any two of the courses in the following list: LING 7030 (Phonetic Theory), LING 7410 (Phonological Theory), LING 7420 (Syntactic Theory), LING 7430 (Semantic Theory), LING 7570 (Diachronic Theory)

Additional courses both within and outside the Department are chosen in consultation with the student’s thesis advisor. Courses numbered at the 5000 level can under some circumstances be used to fulfill PhD elective credits; consult with your advisor or the graduate advisor.

Doctoral Thesis Credits


To complete the requirements for the PhD degree, a student must register for a minimum of 30 dissertation credit hours. Distribution of those hours is as follows:


  • A student may not register for more than 10 dissertation credit hours in any one semester.
  • No more than 10 dissertation credit hours taken in semesters prior to the semester in which the proposal defense is passed may be counted in the 30 dissertation hours required for the PhD.
  • No more than 10 dissertation hours of credit taken the semester in which the proposal defense is passed may be included in the 30 dissertation credit hours required for the degree.


Just remember: 10+10+10. You can use up to 10 thesis credits accumulated from the semesters prior to the prospectus-defense semester, 10 from the prospectus-defense semester and 10 from semesters after the prospectus-defense semester. Try to plan, because you will probably not want to take 10 credits during a semester in which your tuition waiver covers only 6. In addition, to satisfy the Continuous Registration requirement, you must take at least 5 thesis credits in every semester following that in which you advance to candidacy, including the semester in which you defend your thesis.


Transfer of Credit and Requirement Waivers


A PhD student may transfer up to 21 PhD-level coursework credits from a prior academic experience. Transferring graduate credits from another accredited institution involves a Request for Transfer Credit. This form, once completed by you, must be approved first by the Graduate Advisor and second by the Graduate School. There are numerous restrictions on transfer of credit, spelled out on the form. One of these is that you cannot request transfer credit until you have completed at least 6 credits in your graduate program.

By contrast, receiving a waiver of a PhD requirement is a process internal to the Linguistics department. You can use prior coursework to satisfy a requirement or requirements of our PhD program whether the credits corresponding to that coursework are transferred/transferrable or not. If you think that a course you took before beginning your CU Linguistics graduate career should be accepted in satisfaction of a requirement of the PhD program, give the relevant syllabus(es) to the Graduate Advisor. The Graduate Advisor may ask you for additional supporting documentation, e.g., papers that you wrote for the course. The Graduate Advisor may also consult with faculty who teach the relevant course(s) in our program. If your request for a waiver is accepted, the Graduate Advisor will note this in your graduate file and include the relevant documentation. Crucially, you must take elective credits to make up for the required credits that have been waived. In addition, the Department cannot guarantee that your request for a waiver of a graduate requirement will be accepted.

Reading Knowledge of a Research Language

All doctoral students must demonstrate the ability to read linguistic literature in a language other than English, prior to attempting the dissertation prospectus defense. The student and the advisory committee will choose the language together. The student will present the committee with a justification for the language chosen; it must be a medium for publication of pertinent linguistic literature. The committee will determine the means of satisfaction, and may in addition require mastery of another language or languages as a research skill.

Skill Requirements

All doctoral students must demonstrate a research skill appropriate to the research specialization, as determined by the student’s advisory committee. Examples of research skills are competence in a specific programming language, skills in eliciting and organizing primary linguistic data in the field and competence in statistical analysis.

Preliminary Examination

All Ph.D. students must pass a preliminary examination. The examination consists of a focused research paper based on the analysis of language data. A one-page proposal for this paper, prepared in consultation with the advisor and approved by the advisor, must be submitted to the Prelim committee by February 15 of the student’s first year in the program. This proposal should describe the questions that you are planning to investigate, the methods that you plan to use to address these questions, what linguistic properties you will use to create your analysis and the size and current state of the corpus of data that you plan to use (in particular whether it is already 'marked up' for the features that you intend to investigate or, alternatively, whether you will have to annotate the tokens in the corpus yourself). Once the one-page proposal has been approved by the prelim committee, the student may, if he or she desires additional feedback, submit a 5-page pilot analysis, taking into account comments on the one-page proposal received from the committee and advisor. The expanded proposal, if submitted, is due the Monday following the return from Spring Break. It must include the already approved one-page proposal, along with more details of the hypotheses and methodologies, a detailed outline and sample data analysis. Positive feedback received on the expanded proposal does not guarantee that the finished paper will pass. After the student has received approval of the one-page proposal, or feedback on the five-page expanded proposal (if this has been submitted), the student is not permitted to consult with anyone during the exam-writing process.

The finished paper must be submitted by October 1 of the student’s second year. It should be no longer than 50 double-spaced pages, in 12-point font. Prelim papers are read and evaluated by the prelim committee and the advisor, and are assigned a grade of pass or fail. If a student is taking the prelim exam for the second time, all the faculty will evaluate it (not just the committee). Students who fail the exam may submit another paper in the following year’s cycle. Students who fail the examination a second time are asked to withdraw from the program.

Comprehensive Examination

The University’s comprehensive examination requirement is satisfied in two steps, following satisfaction of the above requirements. These steps are: completion of a synthesis paper and successful defense of the dissertation prospectus. Note that the committee that will evaluate the synthesis exam is a three-member committee (which may have a different composition from the thesis committee), while the committee that will evaluate dissertation prospectus is the five-member thesis committee, which must contain at least one University of Colorado faculty member outside the Department.

In the first step, the student completes a synthesis paper that compares theoretical and methodological approaches to an issue in a way that covers one or more subareas of linguistics.  Fulfilling the synthesis requirement is a one-year process. The student establishes a committee of three members. In consultation with the committee, the student determines a general subject area for the exam (potential areas include aspectual systems; language and gender from an interactional perspective; nasalization; gesture and pointing practices; supervised learning in natural language processing). In consultation with the committee, the student then establishes a broad reading list covering the relevant literature in the field, normally consisting of several dozen articles and/or books. This reading list should ideally be completed at the end of the third semester in the PhD program, after the student completes the preliminary exam, but should certainly be completed early in the fourth semester.

The student spends the fourth semester reading the materials on the reading list while consulting regularly with the main advisor. By the end of that semester, the student, in consultation with the committee, should arrive at a paper topic that will allow for a theoretical discussion of some key issue in the chosen subfield. This topic will normally be narrower than the overall synthesis subject area (thus one might discuss pointing practices in relation to determiners and demonstratives, the role of lexical aspect in clausal syntax, or pronoun usage as a component of embodied gendered identity). The discussion should outline major approaches to or understandings of the issue in question from a critical perspective: rather than simply summarizing the approaches or understandings, the student should point out disagreements, weaknesses and limitations, or points of commonality. The point of this exercise is to reveal the student’s ability to think both critically and independently, by requiring the student not merely to report what others have said or done, but rather to develop an individual perspective on the issue in question. This paper certainly can, but need not, be used as a foundation for the dissertation prospectus.

This paper should be submitted to the committee by the end of classes of the fifth semester, although it may be submitted earlier. In any case, it must be submitted by the end of the sixth semester in order for the student to be viewed as making adequate progress. All members of the committee may require rewrites and clarifications, and all members of the committee must approve the synthesis paper before the synthesis requirement is passed.

In the second step, the student prepares and defends a dissertation prospectus. In the prospectus, you will set out the state of the art concerning the linguistic questions you have undertaken to address (citing appropriate prior literature), describe gaps in the state of the art and explain what new methods and perspectives you will bring to bear that will address those gaps. The prospectus should describe in detail the research plan, expected results and the timeline for completing the project. A student becomes a candidate for the doctoral degree after completing the second step. No prospectus defense can be scheduled until the synthesis paper has received final approval from all members of the synthesis exam committee.

Dissertation and Dissertation Defense

A final oral examination and a dissertation suitable for publication are required. The dissertation defense, which is a public event, typically consists of a presentation of the dissertation findings by the candidate, followed by questions and comments from the dissertation committee. The committee will then deliberate privately to determine whether the thesis is ready for submission to the Graduate School or whether, alternatively, the candidate will be required to revise the thesis prior to filing it. The dissertation defense must occur by the last day of classes for the semester in question, unless permission is obtained in advance from all members of the committee for an alternate date


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