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University of Pittsburgh

PhD Degree

PhD Comprehensive Paper Guidelines

Rationale

The University of Pittsburgh Department of Linguistics requires students to have both a broad general knowledge of linguistics as well as a specialization in a particular subfield of the discipline. The comprehensive papers fit into this training by providing an opportunity for the student to develop and demonstrate skills needed to complete a dissertation. These skills include the ability to conduct independent research on a topic of significant scholarly interest; to develop an analysis related to this topic and offer substantial evidence for this analysis; and to defend this analysis against other potential or existing ones, on conceptual and/or empirical grounds.

Of course, while these skills also figure in the writing of term papers, the emphasis here is on the depth and breadth of scholarship and strength of argument and evidence. Thus, for example, a comprehensive paper will be considered unacceptable if it consists of an analysis already proposed in the literature, even if it has arrived at this analysis independently; or if it does not demonstrate sufficient facility with the range of evidence routinely employed in the treatment of some linguistic phenomenon.

Topics for Comprehensive papers

PhD students are required to write two comprehensive evaluation papers: one in a core area of linguistics (defined [for the purposes of this milestone in earning the PhD] as either phonetics, phonology, syntax, or morphology) and another in the student's area of interest, e.g. descriptive linguistics, sociolinguistics, or second language acquisition). There may be some degree of overlap, e.g. a student could write a syntax paper and a paper on the acquisition of syntax, but the papers should be sufficiently different to satisfy the faculty that the student has a broad knowledge of linguistics.

Relationship to Students' Other Work

The comprehensive papers are intended to be a product of independent research and analysis. Students are encouraged to explore different topics for the comprehensive papers and dissertation to avoid too narrow a specialization. However, this does not preclude the possibility that the evaluation papers be a revision or extension of earlier work undertaken by the student (for example, term papers, long papers, or MA theses) or that it eventually be incorporated, in some way, into the student's dissertation. In fact, we encourage students to integrate their course work, comprehensive evaluations, and dissertation research so that they can graduate in a timely fashion from their program. In addition, this process will allow the student to show that he or she has a coherent research program when applying for jobs.

Length and Format

While the comprehensive evaluation papers should address an issue of significant scholarly interest, the treatment of the issues should be highly constrained; thus, their length should be no more than 10,000 words each, including the notes. The papers should be double-spaced, with one-inch margins, and include a list of the references cited in the text. This reference list will usually conform to the Linguistic Society of America style sheet or the American Psychological Association Style Manual (currently the fourth edition). The appropriateness of a literature review should be decided by the student in consultation with his or her advisor. It should not, under any circumstances, constitute more than one-third of the text of the paper.

Advising

A student should ask a faculty member to be the primary advisor for the paper as soon as the student has a topic for the paper. This advisor will guide the student in the choice of an appropriate topic and provide feedback on early drafts. Two other readers, chosen by the student in conjunction with the primary advisor, will read at least one draft and provide feedback before a defense is scheduled. The entire graduate faculty evaluates both the oral and written components of the paper.

Timing

The student need not complete and defend both papers in the same semester. However, it is expected that by the end of the third year of doctoral study, the student will have presented or be ready to present both papers. Students may register for the PhD comprehensive course unit in order to have time to work on the comprehensive paper exclusively.

The oral presentation of a paper normally takes place near the end of each semester, as the final departmental colloquium of the semester, but can be scheduled earlier if the readers agree that the paper is ready. A preliminary draft of the written paper must be submitted to the readers for comments and revision by the eighth week of the semester. The readers will make comments on this draft, paying attention to the criteria set out in this document. The final written draft must be distributed to all faculty at least one week before the oral presentation.

Note that if a paper is to consist of an experiment or deal in any way with human subjects (including questionnaire), permission must be obtained first from the University of Pittsburgh Institutional Review Board (IRB). For guidelines check with your advisor and the IRB.

Note also that the graduate school does not allow the comprehensive exams to take place in the same semester that a student graduates, and recommends that comprehensive exams take place at least eight months prior to the completion of the PhD degree. Students are expected to familiarize themselves with the regulations governing graduate study at the University of Pittsburgh.

Criteria for Evaluation

Written and Oral Components

The comprehensive evaluation consists of both written and oral components, which are evaluated separately. Although the written component is generally of greater importance, neither component alone is sufficient for a passing or failing grade. Thus, an especially weak oral presentation and defense may lead to a failing grade even given a strong written presentation, if it casts sufficient doubt about the student's true understanding of the material at hand. In contrast, an especially strong oral presentation and defense may offset a rather weak written presentation and lead to a passing grade.

Written Presentation

In judging the evaluation paper, the faculty will appeal to the following criteria, which will be given approximately equal weight:

  1. Understanding of the literature.
  2. The student should demonstrate an understanding of past and current thinking about the linguistic phenomena examined in his or her papers. Emphasis is placed on a synthesis of the literature and a highlighting of its important themes rather than on a reference-by-reference summary.

  3. Argumentation.
  4. The student should make a clear distinction between the assumptions, hypotheses, and conclusions of his or her analysis. Emphasis is placed on the logical soundness of argumentation (in particular, the demonstration that conclusions actually flow from premises); on the ability of the analysis to unite different (and perhaps superficially unrelated) types of data, thereby pointing to underlying relationships between these data; and on the demonstration of an awareness of potential consequences of the analysis extending beyond the problem as narrowly defined.

  5. Evidence.
  6. Because linguistics is an empirical discipline, the student must demonstrate an ability to marshal data relevant to his or her analysis, ensuring both the (reasonable) accuracy of these data and a close relationship between the data and associated theoretical statements. The appropriate means of relating data to theory vary from paper to paper and thus are best determined in consultation with the student's advisor.

  7. Creativity.
  8. The student should endeavor to produce an original contribution to the literature, which may be done by uncovering new data, treating familiar data in a new way, drawing a conceptual link between two known but previously unrelated bodies of data, etc. Negative results—that is, the demonstration that some plausible hypothesis does not seem correct for the given data—are acceptable.

  9. Technical correctness.
  10. As far as is possible given changing theoretical frameworks, all theoretical statements made in the framework that the evaluation papers use must be accurate, clearly described, and up to date.

  11. Organization and style of presentation.
  12. The evaluation papers must be neat, readable, and well organized. Given that the audience will include linguists who are informed about the general issues to be addressed, but not necessarily about the specific ones, the papers must be intelligible to such an audience.

Oral Presentation and Defense

The oral presentation lasts 20 minutes in a public forum. After the student's presentation, the public audience is invited to ask questions. Following this question period, the public audience leaves the room, and the faculty ask questions of the student about both the oral and written versions of the paper.

In judging the oral presentations and defense, the faculty will appeal to the following criteria, which will be given approximately equal weight:

  1. Clarity of presentation.
  2. The presentation, which should take no more than 20 minutes for each paper, must be clear, concise, and easy to follow. Students are advised to provide a handout, which includes the hypothesis and conclusions of their analysis, and examples to be discussed.

  3. Knowledge of the relevant literature and issues.
  4. Students must demonstrate, in both the presentation and defense, a detailed knowledge of the literature relevant to their analysis and an understanding of the theoretical and empirical issues that impinge upon it. However, the presentation should not dwell on the literature review; rather only enough background should be provided to make the student's analysis comprehensible to the audience.

  5. Ability to handle questions.
  6. Students must be sufficiently fluent with the theory presupposed by their analysis, with the details of their own analysis, and with the limitations of both theory and analysis that they are able to respond satisfactorily to questions posed during the defense. Satisfactory responses may include the assertion that a given question has no given answer (for example, that it is beyond the domain of inquiry of the theory being assumed); that no real evidence or argument has been given about the issue at hand; or that so many views have been offered as to make any answer highly tentative. Thus the student is at liberty to judge whether a given question is truly "answerable" or not and respond accordingly.

Outcomes of the Comprehensive Evaluation

Possible results of the comprehensive evaluation are:

  1. The papers are approved; the student begins work on the PhD dissertation proposal.
  2. The papers are approved with revisions, but no second defense is required. Revisions must be submitted within one month of the oral defense of the paper. Once the revisions are accepted, the candidate may begin work on the PhD dissertation proposal.
  3. The papers receive a failing grade, and the entire process must be repeated. A repeat of the process must be complete within one calendar year of failure. A student may fail only once. If the student fails a second time, he or she will be required to leave the program.