MA in English: Curriculum

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Overview of Program Requirements
Second Language Requirement
Culminating Course of Study

The MA Handbook is revised annually and should be your first reference for matters pertaining to the curriculum, program policies, and other resources. You are also always welcome to email the Director of the MA in English, Dr. Sarah Lincoln ( with any questions.

Overview of Program Requirements

Students in the MA in English program must complete the following requirements.

  • 45 credits of graduate coursework. These must include:
    • English 500: Problems and Methods of Literary Study (only offered fall term).
    • One graduate seminar (English 507).
    • One course in pre-1800 British or American literature (A seminar on a pre-1800 topic, e.g., Eng 507: Shakespeare, can fulfill both the 507 and the pre-1800 requirement).
    • One course in literature or rhetoric, whether Anglophone or in translation, before 1900.
    • One critical theory course.
    • At least 32 credits in English (courses listed as “Eng”).
    • No more than 13 credits outside of English (these require advisor approval).
  • University Second Language Requirement. This may be completed through coursework or examinations administered by the Department of World Languages and Literatures.
  • Oral Field Examination, with an option for an additional MA Essay.

Note: Requirements for the English MA occasionally change. Students may opt to fulfill the requirements in place during the year when they entered the program if those differ from current requirements.


The English MA Degree requires 45 credits of graduate-level coursework. All coursework must be taken for a letter grade and students are expected to maintain a minimum 3.25 cumulative GPA in the program. Students who fail to do so for at least three consecutive terms will not be allowed to complete the MA Program and may be asked to leave.

Both the student’s advisor and the Program Director must ultimately approve the list of courses students plan to use to fulfill the program’s requirements. The student will list course work used for degree completion on the Degree Completion Plan, explained below, at least 2 terms prior to graduation. Students should meet with their advisor regularly to make sure that they are interpreting the requirements correctly and keeping on track.

English 500: Problems and Methods of Literary Study

Required for all English MA students, English 500 introduces students to the methods of research and analysis they will use throughout the program. Students take the course in the fall of their first year of study. English 500 is designed to help students:

  • Develop and expand close reading skills as an entryway into larger questions of interpretation.
  • Understand and appreciate the significance of formal elements and rhetorical devices, including genre and generic conventions.
  • Understand critical arguments and scholarly conversations, including the ability to identify and summarize critical positions and use secondary material strategically.
  • Refine writing skills: constructing interpretive questions, crafting arguments, organizing paragraphs, using appropriate evidence, developing style, assessing rhetorical situations, addressing specific audiences, and writing with purpose.
  • Engage with theoretical essays and approaches.

1-credit Graduate Courses

Some student loans, scholarships, and grants require full-time status. At PSU, a full time course load at the graduate level is 9 credits or more per term. Half time is 8 credits or less per term. This means that if you enroll for two 4-credit courses you will not have full-time status. In addition to the By-Arrangement options (explained below), the department offers a range of ENG 531 selected topics for 1-credit to help fill out your schedule. These include Eng 531: The Field of English, a course designed for first-year English MA students, and Eng 531: Professional Development, a course designed for second-year students in the program.

By-Arrangement Course Work 

The English department recognizes that By-Arrangement study can be a valuable means of expanding the curriculum and allowing students to pursue special interests. By-Arrangement study may be arranged under several course titles. The following limitations apply:

  • Students may take each By-Arrangement course for between 1 and 4 credits.
  • Students may take no more than 9 credits of By-Arrangement in any given term. 
  • Students can only apply a combined maximum of 8 credits in 501: Research, 502: Independent Study, and 505: Reading & Conference towards the MA degree. This limitation is a combined maximum for all 501, 502, and 505 credits with all course prefixes, including ENG, WR, and those for other departments.
  • Students can only apply a combined maximum of 9 credits in 504: Internship, 508: Workshop, and 509: Practicum towards the MA degree. This limitation is a combined maximum for all 504, 508, and 509 credits with all course prefixes, including ENG, WR, and those for other departments.

Students wishing to pursue By-Arrangement study should seek the approval of a faculty member willing to undertake the arrangement. To register for these courses you must fill out an online By-Arrangement Request Form. Faculty’s time to supervise independent study is limited. Please keep in mind that professors choose to take on these courses on top of their regular workload. 

Following are the course numbers for By-Arrangement: 

  • Eng 501: Research. Students may take from 1 to 4 credits of English 501 as they prepare for their Oral Field Exam. Students should arrange to work with a faculty supervisor, preferably their advisor. See above for the limit on the number of English 501 that students can count toward their MA.
  • Eng 502: Independent Study
  • English 504 or Writing 504: Cooperative Education/Internship. Academic work with a faculty advisor or mentor in conjunction with either paid or unpaid employment outside the university. Please see PSU’s Handshake database for internship opportunities.
  • English 505: Reading and Conference. One-on-one reading/discussion on a special topic with single students. If a group of students wants to gather together and propose a topic to a faculty sponsor, it is better to use English 508: Workshop. See above for the limit on the number of English 505 that students can count toward their MA.
  • Writing 505: Writing and Conference. One-on-one work with a faculty advisor or mentor on a student writing project; this may also include reading and discussion. There is a limit of 12 credits of WR 505 that students can count toward their MA.
  • English 508: Workshop. Workshops are organized around a shared area of interest between a professor and a group of students (and sometimes additional faculty). The faculty role is supervisory; students produce their own discussions, with the faculty members as guides in choosing materials and organizing the group.
  • English 509: Practicum. For students who are assisting a faculty member in a research, writing, or community-based project, or in teaching a lower division course. 

Taking Undergraduate Courses for Graduate Credit

In some cases, faculty may allow a student to take an undergraduate course for graduate credit. You will need to take the course as an English 505 or Writing 505 Reading and Conference, not the undergraduate course number offered, and the professor will give you enhanced assignments appropriate for the graduate level. Again, this should be regarded as a “last resort” when no appropriate graduate-level courses are available.

Courses Taken Outside of the Department

While students must take 32 credits in English (ENG), the remainder of the program (up to 13 credits) may include graduate coursework in related fields, with advisor approval. Some common related fields are Writing (courses in the department prefixed “WR”), Applied Linguistics, World Languages and Literatures, Communication, History, Philosophy, Theater Arts, and Education. It is the student's responsibility to confirm that courses taken outside the department are eligible to be used for credit towards the MA degree.

Second Language Requirement

All Master of Arts students at Portland State are required to demonstrate a proficiency in a language other than English. They may do so either by taking an exam or by providing transcript evidence that they have completed at least two years of college level coursework in a language other than English with a cumulative grade of C- or above. We strongly encourage students to fulfill the language requirement early in their program. This exam must be passed before scheduling the written and the oral MA examinations. Options for satisfying the Second Language Requirements can be found on the World Languages and Literatures Department website. Students are responsible for completing the Second Language Requirement Proficiency Exam Request Form or the Second Language Requirement Verification Request Form and requesting evaluation and certification of language equivalency.

For students who would like to fulfill the language requirement with Spanish or French, we recommend you take the Webcape exam, rather than the CLEP, which is more costly. If you are testing in other languages taught at Portland State, your exam will be conducted for free with a professor in that field. If you are testing in a language not taught at Portland State, you may need to take the BYU test. These exams are administered by the World Languages and Literatures Department, and you should consult them for more information.

Culminating Course of Study

NOTE: The program requirements for the culminating courses of study changed in Fall of 2020. Students who matriculated before 2020 may choose which culminating option to pursue. All students matriculating fall 2020 or after must complete the oral field examination. The old requirements for the culminating experience appear in Appendix 5 of the MA Handbook.

Oral Field Exam

To finish the program, all students must undertake, and successfully pass, an oral field exam (OFE) with supplementary written notes.

An oral field exam (OFE) based on well-defined and well-established fields in English studies (e.g., African American literature, composition and rhetoric, Modernism, postcolonial literature). Each field will have an associated reading list of approximately fifteen items. These lists will be available to students as soon as they enter the MA program and each student will choose one field as the focus of their OFE. We recommend selecting your field no later than the fifth week of your fourth quarter in the program (generally, the fall of your second year); your selection should be noted on your Degree Completion Plan.

Supplementary Written Notes

The OFE also includes the submission of supplementary written notes in two parts. These notes will be submitted to the oral field exam committee a week before the oral field exam. The committee will read this document and use it as a springboard for discussion during the exam.

  1. To prepare for the oral field exam, students will write 1000-1500 words in response to the following questions: What, according to you, is the most important unifying feature of this list? What formal, theoretical, historical, or cultural considerations do you use to map the texts’ relation to one another? These questions may be supplemented with others provided by the student’s committee. 
  2. Students will also write 1000-1500 words in response to the following questions: What are the most useful critical skills or reading practices you acquired during the MA program? How are they useful and in what contexts? How did the ideas or writing of others influence your own writing?

The oral field exam is administered by a committee of two faculty members and graded on a Pass/Fail basis. If students fail the exam on their first attempt, they will be given a second opportunity to take the exam at a later date. If the two examiners disagree on the outcome of the exam, then it is graded as a Fail and the second exam will also include an additional faculty examiner appointed by the MA Director.

The oral field exam will normally be scheduled during the last quarter of the student’s course of study. It will take an hour to an hour and a half to complete.

Optional MA Essay

Students may also choose to write an extended essay as part of their culminating experience. The optional MA Essay gives students the opportunity to engage in advanced research methods to explore a specific topic in depth.

The Form of the MA Essay

The English MA Essay should be an essay of publishable quality and length – approximately 10,000 words – that makes an original contribution to a field of study. Students should write the MA Essay with a particular publication venue in mind, such as an academic journal. Although students are not required to submit their MA Essay for publication, they are encouraged to do so.

The MA Essay should accomplish the following:

  • Present a well-defined, detailed problem appropriate to the time frame and page constraints of the Department’s requirements. The argument should be well organized and show an understanding of the intended audience. It should be written with care for style and balance, use sophisticated and appropriate vocabulary, and use MLA-style formatting. 
  • Demonstrate a wide reading of pertinent background material, historical and current, especially regarding theoretical and cultural issues that bear upon the Qualifying Essay topic.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the critical conversation in the field relevant to the problem, and how the Qualifying Essay contributes to that conversation.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with the methodologies currently used in the discipline, in relation to both the content of the Qualifying Essay and the form of its research methods.
  • Aim to be publishable.

A student’s MA Essay advisor or examining committee may have other suggestions and requirements for the writing of a particular MA Essay. 

The MA Essay Proposal

Students who wish to write a MA Essay must submit a draft proposal to their examining committee defining a focused topic one term before they submit the Degree Completion Plan. This provides the committee time to review and suggest revisions to the MA Essay Proposal. The approved MA Essay Proposal must be submitted as part of the Degree Completion Plan by the fifth week of their fourth term of study. The proposal must:

  • be two to three pages in length,
  • consist of a clear, concise statement of the MA Essay project or problem to be explored, its significance in the context of previous scholarship and criticism (identify a gap in our understanding of the particular topic and suggest the benefits of improving our knowledge of this topic), and an account of the methodologies or critical approaches to be used, and
  • include a preliminary bibliography, including both primary and secondary materials. 

Students should seek the help of their advisor/s in writing the proposal. When the proposal is completed, the proposal becomes part of the Degree Completion Plan. The Director of the MA in English will review the proposal, and may have questions or suggest changes before approving the project.

Approval to write a MA Essay is not automatic; students may be asked to revise the proposal, and only superior proposals will be approved.

MA Essay Timeline Considerations 

Realistically, the MA Essay is a long project, and unless you have a great deal of it already done when your proposal is accepted, it is at least two terms of work. Since the MA Essay must be given to your committee two weeks before the Oral Field Examination, and University policy is that the absolute last date to schedule an oral is in the 9th week of any term, the first four weeks of the term in which you are defending the MA Essay should be used only for final editing and proofreading. Optimally, a student would distribute the MA Essay to their committee at the end of the term prior to the one in which s/he intends to graduate.

In sum, you should give yourself at least a full calendar year, following the approval of your MA Essay proposal, in which to write the MA Essay. For example, to graduate in spring of 2022, the MA Essay proposal should ideally be written and approved by the end of spring term 2021.