Procedures for the Graduate Program

This page provides some practical information for students (and faculty) on how to satisfy various requirements, or to otherwise accomplish tasks as part of the graduate program in Linguistics. The official rules, as filed with the Graduate Division, are listed on this accompanying page.

The following topics are currently covered:

If any questions remain unanswered after reading this document, please contact

Program Overview and Deadlines

Below is a general overview of when a student should complete various steps in the progress toward the PhD, with expected completion in five years. The number of course units is the norm for most students; exceptions are possible under special circumstances.

New 4-digit numbering system begins Fall 2022. Old number in parenthesis

  Fall Term (ending December) Spring Term (ending May)
Year 1

Register for 4 courses

Two must be foundational, including 5310 or 5510  (530 or 550)

Register for 4 courses

Two must be foundational, including 5320 or 5520 (531 or 551)

Year 2

Register for 3 courses and perform service

Must include remaining foundational courses

Register for 3 courses and perform service

Plan for language requirement

Year 3

Register for 3 courses and perform service

Complete first qualifying paper

Register for 3 courses and perform service

Complete second qualifying paper

Must pass language requirement 

Year 4

Aim to defend proposal

Must defend proposal

Year 5 Continue work on dissertation

Aim to complete degree by May or August

(End of five-year fellowship support)

Other, more specific deadlines are identified in the discussion below. See this page for University guidelines about advising and mentoring in the PhD program.

By University policy, an incomplete grade is assigned at the discretion of the instructor. In particular, incompletes are not generally permitted in foundational courses, where the grade functions as part of the Qualifications Examination. Even when a foundational instructor chooses to assign an incomplete, it must be changed to a grade no later than June 30 unless an extension is granted by the Graduate Chair. Otherwise, the student will be considered to have made insufficient progress and cannot remain in the program.

Any other type of incomplete should be resolved before the next academic year begins. In other words, it should be resolved by the end of the summer following the course where the incomplete was assigned. This means that the work must be submitted with sufficient lead time for the instructor to evaluate it and assign a grade. Students should also note that due to University policy, incompletes may not remain more than twelve months after the original deadline, or else there is a risk of losing fellowship support. To facilitate timely completion of coursework, the student should continue to meet at least monthly with the relevant faculty member after the course has ended.

Students should bear in mind that the Dynamics and Semantics sequences are offered in alternating years: Dynamics in academic years beginning with an odd number (i.e. 2017-18) and Semantics in even-numbered years (i.e. 2018-19). This means that whether a student takes a sequence in the first or second year depends on the year of matriculation. Of course, not every student will need to take these sequences.

Only courses at the 5000 level and above can count toward a graduate degree at Penn. Students must receive permission from the graduate chair to take any course outside the Department of Linguistics; however, certain courses are pre-approved for our students and do not require special permission. Students should be aware that a grade of B is considered minimally satisfactory at the graduate level; a grade of C indicates unsatisfactory performance. The Provost requires a minimum GPA of 3.0 for all graduate students.

Graduate students are permitted to audit either graduate or undergraduate courses. Since an audited course does not count toward degree requirements, the course can be at any level. The course will appear on the transcript with AUD in lieu of a grade, and no credit units are counted. For example, basic language courses can be taken as official audits as long as the instructor and department allow auditors (see also below). Some departments with large undergraduate enrollments require that students wishing to audit the course take it for credit, which cannot be counted toward the graduate degree. Students may audit at most one course per semester, and only with the approval of the advisor.

Students with 20 completed course units are registered under dissertation status. Starting fourth-year students should email  Amy Forsyth the name of the faculty supervisor in order to arrange this registration. A student who ends the third year of study with fewer than 20 credits due to unresolved incompletes should resolve them before the start of the fourth year. If any incompletes remain at the end of the summer, the student must present a plan for rapid completion of the work, approved by the advisor, or will be forced to go on leave without fellowship support until successfully reaching the necessary 20 credits.


All students pursuing a PhD are required by the University to spend at least one full year in residence, i.e. at Penn taking courses full-time. This is a minimum requirement, supplemented by graduate group policies.

The Graduate Group in Linguistics expects that students will be in residence at Penn each semester, throughout the term of their fellowship. This policy is to ensure that the student receives appropriate advising and supervision, and participates in the intellectual life of the Group. Exceptions are, of course, made for the purposes of fieldwork or well-motivated study at another university. Any fellowship student on dissertation tuition who wishes to be absent from the University for more than two weeks during a semester, for any reason, must obtain written approval from the graduate chair; the student's advisor is expected to endorse the request. No student taking courses should be absent during the semester except for brief academic reasons (such as a conference) or a personal emergency; in either case, the student must notify the course instructors and the advisor, and arrange to make up missed material.

The official semester lasts from the first day of classes until the last day of finals, as indicated in the academic calendar. Students taking courses (i.e. those in the first three years) are required to arrive by the first day of the semester, and must certainly remain until the last day of classes; they may leave before the end of finals week if they have completed all coursework for that semester. As noted below, first-time TA's must arrive early for the fall semester to attend a training workshop (in late August); any student serving as a TA should remain on campus until all duties are completed, including the final exam, unless specifically permitted by the instructor to leave earlier.

Note that the University policy on leaves of absence includes maternity leave and the care of a dependent; see the page of university policies for details.

Foundational Courses

Students satisfy the University requirement called the Qualifications Evaluation by completing eight foundational courses by the end of the second year with a minimum GPA of 3.0. The University requirement known as the Candidacy Examination (previously called the "Preliminary Examination") is satisfied by additionally completing the qualifying papers by the end of the third year. For more details on these requirements, see the graduate group rules.

Language Requirement

The graduate group has instituted a new language requirement, described below, that applies to all matriculants starting in Fall 2015, as well as to all current students who choose to adopt it. The previous language reading exam is described here.

Students are expected to explore diverse languages as part of their education. To that end, all students must demonstrate meaningful engagement with the structure of a language other than English or (if different) their native language before the end of the third year. This requirement can be satisfied in any of the following three ways. 

  1. Ling 5020 (502): Linguistic Field Methods.
  2. A graduate course on the structure of a specific language, approved by the graduate chair. This can include a 9997 (505) course created in response to student request.
  3. A qualifying paper or similarly in-depth research that involves independent analysis of language data, approved by the graduate chair and the student’s advisor.

For the last two options, the student is advised to seek approval in advance to ensure that a proposed course or paper topic will qualify, but work that is already completed can also be considered. A minimum grade of B applies to any course used to satisfy the requirement.

For option 3, remember that a qualifying paper reflects a semester's worth of work, and (as noted below) is normally expected to be 25-30 pages in length. The language requirement cannot be satisfied by a short paper completed in a few weeks at the end of the semester, as is typical for the final paper in introductory courses such as Ling 5320 or 5520 (531 or 551). In addition, a paper that merely cites forms from the secondary literature is unlikely to show meaningful engagement; it should instead involve new data from the descriptive literature or work with a native speaker to explore a question more deeply than previous researchers.

Qualifying Papers

The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that students have reached the point of doing independent research, as well as to encourage them on the road to publishing their work. The result should be comparable to a paper at a conference such as NELS or a squib in Linguistic Inquiry. A length of 25 to 30 double-spaced pages is considered reasonable, but the specific nature of the research will affect the appropriate length. Students writing papers for courses are advised to consider in each case if the paper is one that could be revised into a qualifying paper. This strategy is considerably less burdensome than writing an entirely new paper.

A student who has completed most of the work for a qualifying paper in advance of the third year is free to satisfy the requirement early, simply by submitting the abstract and choosing a committee when ready. The exam can be scheduled at any time, as long as it is before the relevant deadline (December for the first QP, May for the second). Students may use an Independent Study course (LING 9999) to structure the work for a qualifying paper, with the QP as the semester project.

An abstract of about one page, plus references, must be emailed (in PDF form) to Amy Forsyth and the graduate chair by the first day of the semester. The faculty who will serve on the evaluation committee must be consulted well in advance of the deadline in order to give them time to read the abstract and give their agreement. A student who fails to submit an abstract for the qualifying paper on time will not be permitted to register, and is in danger of losing fellowship support. 

Because the qualifying papers are a graduate group requirement and function as an exam, they cannot be treated in the same way as research papers for a course; the members of the committee function as representatives of the graduate group in assessing whether the student has demonstrated the abilities necessary to proceed to the dissertation stage. This also means that Amy Forsyth and the graduate chair must be copied on the email that submits the final paper (and any revision) to the committee members.

Remember that any file emailed to other people should be named in a way that makes sense once it leaves your own computer; for example, the first qualifying paper abstract should not be called "My abstract" but rather "Lastname-QP1-abstract". Include all the relevant information in the pdf file: not just the abstract itself but the title, the date, and the names of both committee members. 

A private meeting with the committee serves as the QP defense in which the student answers questions on the content of the paper; this meeting must be scheduled no later than the last day of the semester. The final written version of the QP should normally be sent to the committee a week before the meeting, but a shorter or longer advance date is acceptable if agreed upon by the committee members. 

The acceptance of the paper is given at the end of this meeting or, if necessary, the 30-day period required for successful revision begins from that date. The faculty committee sends an email to the graduate chair, copied to the program coordinator (Amy Forsyth), to indicate their approval of the paper, or the need for a revised submission.

Occasionally there may be delays outside the student's control, such as a specific problem in gathering experimental data integral to the paper, or a medical emergency. Under such circumstances, a request for a brief extension may be submitted to the graduate chair in writing, with the approval of both committee members. 

Fellowship Service

The Benjamin Franklin Fellowship requires four semesters of service; this is normally in the second and third years at Penn, but may be deferred to the fourth year based on the needs of the student or the program. The graduate group requires two semesters of teaching experience, satisfied by serving as a Teaching Fellow (TF) at least twice. Generally speaking, the other two semesters may be teaching or research (as a Research Fellow, or RF). By force of habit, these categories are often referred to as TA and RA (i.e. Assistant rather than the official Fellow), but for tax purposes the official category is Fellow, not Assistant.

The faculty meets once a year, toward the end of the spring term, to determine service assignments for the following year. The following general principles are applied, although various constraints sometimes make this impossible.

  • As a condition of the degree, every student must teach at least two semesters in order to get appropriate classroom experience. Ideally, this means assisting in at least one course with weekly recitation sections (0001, 0600, 0500, 0150) or occasional classroom teaching (2500, 4000), rather than just grading, office hours, and review sessions (0130, 2100, 2300).
  • No student should teach more than three semesters in courses with recitation sections; this leaves at least one semester for a research position or a less intensive teaching assignment.
  • No student should be required to assist in Ling 0001 more than twice.
  • To the extent possible, students are assigned teaching or research positions that match their interests and existing abilities.

Students are notified by email of their assignments once the meeting has taken place. First-time TA's are required to attend a three-day TA training session organized by SAS. It is scheduled each year in late August, just before the start of the semester.

Non-native speakers of English are required to take a SPEAK test of English fluency in the semester before they begin teaching; details are provided to relevant students when the time arises.

Students on special fellowship support in their early years (such as IGERT, NSF, Javits) do not have the same service obligations, but are nevertheless required to do two semesters of teaching. The timing of these assignments is worked out according to the individual situation.

Job Appointments

Any student being funded as a Research Assistant or other position on a grant is responsible for ensuring that a proper award letter is prepared, signed, and submitted to Amy Forsyth by September 1 (for fall term or year-long appointments) or January 1 (for spring appointments). The letter must contain the following information:

  • Name of the grant or other funding source
  • Name of funding source, and University budget code
  • Duration of the appointment (e.g. one semester, 9 months, or 12 months)
  • Monthly or hourly stipend
  • Benefits covered, including tuition and health insurance (specify amounts)
  • Job responsibilities and hours per week (the limit is 20 hours per week)
  • Name and signature of the supervising faculty member
  • Name and signature of the student receiving the funding

A simple alternative to a letter is a form which can be downloaded in pdf (to be printed out and filled in) or as a Word document (with lines to be filled in electronically, then printed).

Amy Forsyth can help with some of the details, but much of the information must come from the administrator of the grant, or the supervising faculty member. The paperwork to begin payments to the student cannot be processed until this information is submitted; it is therefore in the student's interest to provide the letter in a timely manner. The business office that administers the fund may prefer to send the budget code directly to Amy, who will then complete that line of the form.

Students with funding from the Benjamin Franklin fellowship program are expected to devote themselves full time to study (and, in service years, to teaching or research training). This requirement holds for the ten months in which the stipend is received, from September to June of each academic year. During unfunded summer months, students are free to take outside employment of any sort; but the fellowship rules also apply if the student is receiving summer funding from Penn.

When any student receiving funding (including fellowship or RA) has an opportunity to engage in a part-time job related to his or her studies, permission may be granted for up to 5 hours per week. This permission, granted by the graduate chair for one semester at a time, also requires the approval of the student's advisor (who must affirm that the job will not interfere with the student's progress) and, in a service year, of the instructor or other supervisor of the student's teaching or research activities.

Independent Studies

The course number LING 9999 is intended for a student wishing to initiate an independent study project. (If several students are participating in a special course, the appropriate course number is LING 9997.) In order to register for this course, the student must provide the following information with his or her signature and that of the faculty member supervising the project.

  • Name: name of student.
  • Email address: email address of student.
  • Supervisor: name of faculty member.
  • Title: name of project, which will appear on the student's transcript.
  • Semester: term in which the course will take place.
  • Description: paragraph describing the purpose of the project, including the question of interest and the method proposed for investigation.
  • Requirements: list of specific criteria by which the student's performance will be evaluated, including frequency of meetings and nature of final paper or project.

See this pdf file for the preferred format; it can also be used as a blank form to be filled in. Submit the signed proposal to Amy Forsyth for completion of registration. If the supervisor is not a member of the graduate group, the proposal also requires the signature of the graduate group chair.

Dissertation Committee

As students complete their coursework, they should be moving toward a well-defined dissertation topic and deciding on the appropriate faculty to serve on the dissertation committee. This committee normally consists of three faculty members; four members is not uncommon, but more than that tends to be unwieldy. At least half the members of the committee, including the chair, must be members of the standing faculty in the graduate group. (This excludes retired Penn faculty.) On approval of the graduate chair, one member of the committee may come from outside the graduate group, or from an institution other than Penn. Students must, of course, invite each person to serve on the committee and notify the graduate chair only after the faculty have agreed.

In paperwork related to the dissertation committee, Penn uses the term "dissertation supervisor" for the person corresponding to the advisor: that is, the faculty member who takes the lead role as advisor in guiding the research. This is also the name that appears on the transcript as the instructor of LING 9950, Dissertation registration, and as the supervisor listed on the transcript once the degree is granted. Usually the same individual serves as "chair" of the committee. A student may have a "co-supervisor" who plays a secondary role, or two "co-supervisors" who play equal roles. Other members of the committee are "readers". Normally the supervisor and the graduate chair are the only faculty who sign the title page of the dissertation, but if the graduate chair has approved co-supervisors, then both can be included on the title page. If the student desires a supervisor or co-supervisor who is not a member of the Penn standing faculty, this requires approval of the graduate chair and the vice-provost for education. If an outside supervisor is approved, the chair must be a different person who is on the standing faculty.

The dissertation committee must be in place before submission of a dissertation proposal. The composition of the committee can be changed at a later date if circumstances require.

The University requires students to meet at least once a year with their full dissertation committee, to review the student's progress. It is sensible to do this in the fall semester, before submitting the Dissertation Progress Report.

N.B. Be careful to distinguish the "dissertation committee" from the overlapping "dissertation proposal defense committee", below. The briefer terms "proposal defense committee" and "proposal committee" refer to the second category.

Dissertation Proposal

Students must defend a dissertation proposal by the end of the the fourth year, which is one year after the completion of coursework. This event should be treated as an exam to determine that the student is prepared to embark on work for the dissertation. To accomplish this goal, the student should begin regular meetings with the advisor no later than the beginning of the fourth year, and a topic for the proposal should be determined by the end of the fall semester. At this point other faculty should be approached to serve as additional members of the dissertation committee.

In consultation with the dissertation supervisor (i.e. the advisor), the student should develop a written proposal of about 20 pages in length. This document normally includes a discussion of the basic issues of interest; what work the student has already done; and how these interim results bear on the likely course of the dissertation research. It should give a clear idea of the questions to be addressed in the dissertation and the research methods that will be used. It is not expected that the proposal will contain definitive conclusions. Rather, it should be written at an early enough stage in the investigation to allow for changes and additions based on feedback from graduate group faculty through the approval process.

A student ready to schedule a proposal defense must contact the graduate chair and provide the (tentative) title of the dissertation, a brief abstract, and the names of the faculty who have agreed to serve on the dissertation committee. (Like all such communications, it is sensible to copy Amy Forsyth on email messages.) The graduate chair will appoint a proposal defense committee consisting of three faculty members: this committee examines the student, and is distinct from the dissertation committee that is chosen by the student. For this reason, the external members of the proposal committee are not expected to participate in the preparation of the proposal, but simply to evaluate the result.

Several restrictions hold for the proposal defense committee: at least one of the members must be "external", i.e. from outside the dissertation committee; the dissertation supervisor cannot serve on the proposal defense committee; and all members of the proposal committee will normally be members of the linguistics department. The graduate chair will appoint one member to serve as chair of the committee to facilitate the conduct of the proposal defense.

In consultation with the graduate chair and the members of the proposal committee, the student must then take responsibility to arrange a suitable day and location for the proposal defense. This day must be at least two weeks after the written proposal is made available to the community as a pdf file. The preferred time is during the Thursday afternoon slot that used to hold the department's colloquium; if this is not possible for scheduling reasons, an alternate time (such as Friday) should be chosen to minimize conflicts with courses or other events. When necessary, room reservations can be made online for campus classrooms.

The proposal defense is open to the public. It consists of a one-hour presentation by the student, followed by thirty minutes of questions from the audience. All audience members may ask questions, but the chair must be sure to reserve time for members of the proposal committee to ask questions (most often first). At the end of the question period, the proposal committee meets privately to vote on whether to approve the proposal. The dissertation supervisor participates in this meeting, but does not vote. Other members of the graduate group faculty are also permitted as non-voting observers in the meeting. The student is then informed of the results by the chair of the proposal committee, who also summarizes any recommendations for modification of the dissertation plan.

The best way to ensure approval of the proposal is to work closely with the members of the dissertation committee during its preparation. If the proposal defense committee decides that the proposal is not passing, the chair will prepare a list of specific changes that must be made. The student has 30 days in which to make these changes. The revised proposal is evaluated in its written form, without a second oral presentation. If this revision is still judged by the committee to be inadequate, the student must withdraw from the program.

For students planning to defend a proposal: Meet regularly with your supervisor to ensure that the proposal will be ready to defend. At least a month before the intended defense, send the graduate chair your title, the name of your supervisor and the other members of the dissertation committee, and a short abstract (one or two paragraphs). The graduate chair will appoint an external member at this time; it is then your job to coordinate a date, time, and room. Once a date is set, email the date to Amy, so she can have it added to the "Upcoming Events" on the department website; this will help to avert any conflicts. Two weeks before the event, announce the details to the department with an abstract and a link to an electronic version of the proposal. (Your committee members can request the proposal earlier than this, so ask them.) Include the name of the supervisor, and optionally the other committee members, in the proposal document. The day before the defense, send a reminder to the department.

Dissertation Examination

Students are required to defend the dissertation publicly before it is accepted as part of the requirements for the PhD. University regulations permit this Dissertation Examination (also called the Oral Exam; more casually the "dissertation defense") to be based on a non-final draft rather than an essentially completed version. The Graduate Group accepts either approach, except that the Exam must not occur more than six months before the deposit of the dissertation; otherwise a new examination must be arranged. The written dissertation on which the Exam will be based should be provided to the committee members in time for them to read it carefully before the Exam; normally this will be at least two weeks, but the committee should be consulted for more specific deadlines.

Similarly, the date for the Dissertation Examination should be at least two weeks prior to the appointment to deposit the dissertation with the Graduate Division (see below) in order to leave time for any revisions that may be called for. Students planning to graduate in August are advised to schedule an examination no later than May, to ensure that interested members of the community can attend. As with the proposal defense, the student should arrange a suitable day and location for the dissertation defense in consultation with the members of the committee, minimizing any conflict with courses or other events. Announce the information to penguists and email the date to Amy Forsyth so it can be included on the online calendar.

Note: At the present time, a defense can be held either in person or remotely.

The dissertation defense is open to the public. It consists of a presentation by the student of about one hour, followed by questions from the audience, normally lasting up to an hour. The chair of the dissertation committee (usually the supervisor) runs the meeting. At the end of the question period, the committee meets privately to vote on whether to approve the dissertation. Other members of the graduate group faculty are permitted as non-voting observers in the meeting. The student is then informed of the results by the chair of the committee, who also summarizes any recommendations to be incorporated into the final draft.

As in the case of the original dissertation proposal, the best way to ensure approval of the final dissertation is to work closely with the members of the committee throughout the process. If the dissertation is not approved, the dissertation supervisor, in consultation with the rest of the committee, will make a list of necessary changes in writing, provided to the student within one week of the Exam. Once the dissertation committee and the graduate chair are satisfied that the revised dissertation successfully reflects the changes, the student will be permitted to schedule a new Exam.

If the dissertation is successfully defended early in the semester – before the end of the fifth week – the Graduate Division will waive the tuition for that term. The waiver is only for tuition: students are responsible for the general fee, health insurance, and any other charges on their bursar account. Note also that students who are extended the courtesy tuition waiver have one month from the waiver date to make any required revisions and deposit their dissertations in the Graduate Division office.


As the dissertation work reaches an end, the student will need to complete various steps to ensure graduation on schedule. The formal diploma ceremony is in May; if graduation is delayed until August, the student can participate in this ceremony only if certain steps are taken by early May, including certification by the committee that the student is expected to be done in time for the August degree. Otherwise August graduates, like December graduates, are invited to the following May ceremony.

The Office of the Provost oversees the graduation process. Be sure to follow the deadlines for graduation, since they are strictly enforced. You should make use of the graduation checklist. Students who defend by the end of the fifth week of the term to receive a tuition waiver must deposit within 30 days of that deadline.

There are two main steps that you must take care of well in advance:

  • Apply for the degree with the Graduate Division. You should do this early in the term in which you wish to graduate. 
  • Set up an appointment for deposit of the final version of the dissertation or thesis. The appointment simply reserves time for the staff member to review your document, and you must upload your pdf two days beforehand. Make the appointment as soon as possible, or you may find it difficult to get your desired time.

Pay careful attention to the required formatting of the dissertation or thesis. The title page optionally includes the signatures of the supervisor and the graduate chair, but the other members of the committee do not sign this page.

All forms are online and will be prepared by Amy Forsyth, but it is the student's responsibility to make the necessary information and materials available in a timely manner. The Acceptance of Dissertation requires the signatures of the entire dissertation committee as well as the graduate chair. The student must submit the exact title and the names of the committee members at least two weeks before the appointment to deposit the dissertation; otherwise the form will be processed for the next degree cycle.

The graduate group is expected to approve the final dissertation for its essential formatting before it is deposited, so provide the pdf to the chair for review before you upload it.

You must ensure that you do not owe any money to the bursar, or else your degree will not be processed. If for some reason you change or cancel your appointment to deposit the dissertation, notify Amy immediately.

Note that the LSA offers a free one-year membership for recent PhD recipients. At Penn, the Vice Provost for University Life offers a wide range of career services.

Graduates should be aware that their Penn digital accounts – including email and PennBox – will become unavailable at some point after graduation, so they should make prompt arrangements to move to other services.

See also this general list of links to resources for graduate students.