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Graduate Handbook

Ph.D. Program Requirements

The doctoral degree in Linguistics includes the following components:

  • Required coursework
  • Satisfaction of language requirements
  • Completion of a Doctoral minor
  • Successful defense of two prelim papers
  • Successful defense of a dissertation proposal
  • Successful defense of a dissertation

All coursework except Ling 990 must be completed before the second preliminary exam. Any substitutions or exceptions to these requirements must be approved by the Degree Programs Committee. Students may take additional courses (including additional iterations of Seminar or Thesis) in Linguistics or other departments, according to their interest, if time permits.

See the Graduate School’s enrollment requirements for information about full-time enrollment levels.

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Required Linguistics Courses

  • 310: Phonology
  • 322: Morphology
  • 330: Syntax
  • 340: Semantics
  • 510: Phonological Theories
  • 522: Advanced Morphology
  • 530: Syntactic Theories
  • 800: Research Methods and Materials
  • Three iterations of 977: Seminar (3 credits each x 3 = 9 credits total)
  • Three iterations of 990: Thesis (3 credits each x 3 = 9 credits total)

Language Requirements

Knowledge of three languages is required:

  1. English
  2. A non-Indo-European language or a modern Indic language
  3. A third language determined in consultation with the student’s advisor according to the student’s research goals.

The language requirements can be satisfied in the following ways:

  • by being a native speaker of the language
  • by presenting transcripts showing that 12 credits of college-level work in the language have been completed no more than three years before admission to the Linguistics Ph.D. program, with grades of B or better in both of the last two semesters of course work
  • by taking two semesters of a language with a minimum grade of B. Over 40 languages are taught each semester at UW-Madison during the regular academic year, with even more options available through intensive summer programs. These include many less commonly studied and endangered languages.
  • by taking a linguistics field methods course (Linguistics 426 or 427)
  • by taking a Structure of a Language course (Linguistics 571)
  • by taking an advanced course or a seminar which is designed to discuss data from a particular language in detail, when this course is designated as appropriate by the Degree Programs Committee on the advice of the faculty teaching the course
  • by taking tests administered by language departments or the University of Wisconsin Extension and getting a passing grade

Students must satisfy the language requirements by the defense of their second prelim exam. Students may petition the Degree Programs Committee for other ways of satisfying the language requirements.

Doctoral Minor

The Graduate School requires Ph.D. students to demonstrate breadth in their studies, typically achieved by completing a doctoral minor in addition to their home program coursework. The Linguistics Ph.D. program requires a 12-credit minor. There are two options:

  • Option A – External Minor: Students take a series of courses prescribed in some other department’s doctoral minor program. For example, Ph.D. students in Linguistics might consider a doctoral minor in Computer Science, Psychology, Community-Engaged Scholarship, Second Language Acquisition, or English Linguistics. The set of courses must be approved by the external department offering the minor, and the number of required credits may vary. Note that if the number of credits for the External Minor is less than 12, the student will need to take additional credits to reach the 12 required by the Linguistics Ph.D. program. Contact the external department directly to enroll in their doctoral minor program.
  • Option B – Distributed Minor: Students assemble a coherent individualized program of courses (minimum of 12 credits) relevant to their own goals, which may include courses from any subject area, including Linguistics. The set of courses must be approved by the student’s major advisor. Students might assemble a set of courses focusing on a particular geographical or cultural area (Native American languages and cultures, Hispanic linguistics, German, Chinese, or Japanese linguistics, for example), or an area of interest such as psycholinguistics, speech disorders, language acquisition, or sociolinguistics. UW-Madison offers a vast array of courses to choose from, including any course numbered 300 or above on the Linguistics Electives page.

Students must declare the Ph.D. minor themselves by adding a minor program in their MyUW Grad Portal (see here for directions).

Preliminary Exams

Topics and Expectations

Preliminary examinations consist of two research papers in two different areas. For example, prelim 1 could be in phonology and prelim 2 in morphology, or prelim 1 in syntax and prelim 2 in phonetics. These areas must be approved by the student’s advisor. The two papers cannot have significant overlap.


The first prelim evaluates the student’s capability for original research and strength of argumentation, and must be completed and defended by the end of the fourth semester of study. The second prelim paper must, in addition, be of publishable quality in the judgment of the faculty. The second prelim must be successfully defended by the end of the eighth semester of study, along with the dissertation proposal. The topic of the second prelim is frequently, although not necessarily, closely related to the dissertation topic.

Prelim Committees

Each prelim paper is evaluated by a committee of (at least) two faculty members. The chair of the committee must be a member of Language Sciences; other committee members may be from Language Sciences or any other department, including visiting faculty. Each prelim has its own committee, typically (although not necessarily) with different composition. Students should work with their advisors to select appropriate committee members depending on their paper topic. Students should formally ask faculty to be on their committee as soon as potential members have been identified — ideally at least one semester prior to the defense deadline. Once the faculty members agree to be on the committee, students must provide that information to the Graduate Coordinator. Students are advised to meet with committee members early and often to receive feedback on their topic and written drafts.

Prelim Defense

Each paper must be presented publicly and followed by an oral defense. The defense date is determined by the student and committee members. Students should not assume that faculty will have availability during summer, breaks, or busy periods such as the end of the semester. Dates should be set well in advance to ensure that deadlines are met.

A written version of the prelim paper must be submitted to all committee members at least two weeks before the scheduled defense date. The student must also inform the Graduate Coordinator, who will apply for a warrant and publicly announce the event.


Dissertation Proposal

A student must present and defend a dissertation proposal at or within two weeks of the defense of the second prelim paper, by the end of the eighth semester of study. The committee evaluating the dissertation proposal consists of the student’s advisor and two other faculty members chosen in consultation with the advisor. A written version of the dissertation proposal must be submitted to the committee members at least two weeks before the scheduled oral defense.

Admission to Candidacy

A student will be admitted to candidacy upon satisfying the following requirements:

  • completion of preliminary examinations in two areas,
  • advanced course work in a third area,
  • approval of the dissertation proposal,
  • completion of the Ph.D. minor.

Dissertation Committee

Students must be ready to form their dissertation committees when they defend their dissertation proposal. The dissertation committee consists of five members. One (typically the student’s advisor) is the chair of the committee, chosen by the student. The other committee members may be Language Sciences faculty or faculty from other departments, including visiting faculty, and must include members with tenure homes in at least two UWMadison departments. Visiting faculty cannot, however, chair a dissertation committee. The committee chair is the primary guide for the student in the development of the dissertation, although the student can expect feedback from other members of the committee.

The Graduate School has additional guidelines for committees which must also be followed.

Dissertation Defense

The dissertation is presented publicly and followed by an oral defense. A written version of the dissertation must be submitted to all committee members at least two weeks before the scheduled defense date. The student must  inform the Graduate Coordinator of the defense date, title, and committee members at least three weeks prior to the defense date, so that a warrant can be secured from the Graduate School.

See the Graduate School page for more information on deadlines and procedures for depositing your completed dissertation.

Sample Schedule

Here is one sample schedule showing a typical sequencing of courses. Each student will work with their faculty advisor to determine their personalized schedule.

Five years is the minimum time needed to finish the degree – some students will need six or more years, depending on when they complete prelim exams and amount of time spent on the dissertation.

Fall Spring
Year 1 1. Ling 310: Phonology
2. Ling 330: Syntax
3. course for minor
4. (optional 4th course)
1. Ling 322: Morphology
2. Ling 510: Phonological Theories
3. Ling 530: Syntactic Theories
4. (optional 4th course)
Choose faculty advisor
Year 2 1. Ling 522: Advanced Morphology
2. Ling 800: Research Methods & Materials
3. course for minor
Determine 1st prelim topic, form committee
1. Ling 340: Semantics
2. Ling 977: Seminar
3. course for minor
Defend 1st prelim
Year 3 1. Ling 977: Seminar
2. course for minor
3. Ling 699: Independent Reading
Determine 2nd prelim topic, form committee
1. Ling 977: Seminar
2. Ling 699: Independent Reading
3. optional elective course
Defend 2nd prelim & dissertation proposal*
Year 4 Ling 990: Thesis Ling 990: Thesis
Year 5 Ling 990: Thesis Ling 990: Thesis
Defend dissertation

*An additional year may be added to the coursework phase if necessary. All required courses (other than Ling 990), the 1st and 2nd prelim, and the dissertation proposal must be completed by the end of the 8th semester at the latest.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Articulates research problems, potentials, and limits with respect to theory, knowledge, or practice within the field of linguistics.
  2. Formulates ideas, concepts, designs, and/or techniques beyond the current boundaries of knowledge within linguistics.
  3. Creates research that makes a substantive contribution to the understanding of human language.
  4. Demonstrates breadth within their learning experiences.
  5. Advances contributions of the field of linguistics to society.

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Every graduate student has an official faculty advisor who serves as the student’s mentor. New students are initially assigned to the current Director of Language Sciences. By the end of the first year, students must decide who they would like to work with, and must ask that person if they are willing to serve as advisor. If the faculty member agrees, the student is responsible for notifying the Graduate Coordinator of the advisor change. All faculty members in Language Sciences (including those with tenure homes in other departments, but excluding visiting faculty) may serve as advisors. Faculty who are not members of Language Sciences may not serve as official advisors, even though they may co-chair committees.

Every faculty member has the right to refuse to become a student’s advisor. Every graduate student has the right to choose any faculty member as advisor, so long as the faculty member agrees. Students should also feel free to change advisors at any time, without fear of offending a faculty member. If a student changes advisors, the student is responsible for informing the Graduate Coordinator of the change, and the previous advisor must also be notified by the student in writing.

The advisor guides the student in the choice of appropriate courses, in the planning of prelims and the dissertation, in choosing prelim and dissertation committees, and in other professional matters. Students are reminded, however, that the fulfillment of program requirements is ultimately the student’s responsibility.

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Non-terminal MA Procedures

We do not have an admitting MA program, but students in the PhD program earn an MA in Linguistics along the way to the PhD. The requirements for the MA are listed here in the Linguistics MA Guide entry.

When students have completed the requirements for the MA part of the PhD program, they should contact the Graduate Coordinator to initiate conferral of the MA degree.

Policies and Procedures

Transfer Credit and Prior Coursework

Graduate Work from Other Institutions: With program approval, students are allowed to transfer up to 9 credits of graduate coursework from other institutions. Coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a master’s degree or earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

UW–Madison Undergraduate: No credits from a UW–Madison undergraduate degree are allowed to count toward the degree.

UW–Madison University Special: With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 9 credits of coursework numbered 300 or above taken as a UW–Madison Special student. Coursework earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

The Graduate School has additional restrictions on transfer credit that must be met as well. See the Graduate School’s transfer credit page for full details. Both Language Sciences and Graduate School policies must be satisfied.

Students interested in transferring credit should first speak to their faculty advisor, and then email the Graduate Coordinator with a syllabus and transcript to make their request.

Course Waivers and Substitutions

A student may request an exception to the course requirements by submitting a written petition, bearing the faculty advisor’s approval, to the Language Sciences Degree Programs Committee. For example, a student might request that a required course be waived due to previous study at a prior institution, or that a similar UW-Madison course be substituted for a required course, e.g. a graduate-level linguistics seminar in another department for Ling 977.

Requests for course waivers must also be approved by the faculty member designated by the Degree Programs Committee for the relevant subject area. In this case the student’s petition to the Degree Programs Committee must bear both the faculty advisor’s and the designated faculty member’s approval.

A student is waived out of a course only if the designated faculty member decides that the student’s previous work covers the material as taught in the course in our program. It is not sufficient for the student to have taken any course in the area in question. The student’s petition must therefore provide detailed information about previous work, accompanied by a syllabus when possible.

The Degree Programs Committee makes the final decision on all exception requests.

Satisfactory Progress

A student admitted into the Ph.D. program must be making satisfactory progress in order to continue in the program. Satisfactory progress is defined by the program as complying with the following timetable:

  • The first prelim paper is defended at the latest by the end of the fourth semester of study,
  • The second prelim paper and the dissertation proposal are defended at the latest by the end of the eighth semester of study,
  • Language requirements and course requirements are satisfied by the end of the semester in which the second prelim paper is defended.

If a prelim committee decides after the oral defense that the paper or dissertation proposal is not acceptable, the student is placed on probation and may submit a revision or a different paper or dissertation proposal before the end of the following semester. If this paper or dissertation proposal also fails, the student is dropped from the program. If the failing prelim paper is the second prelim paper, the student must submit a passing prelim paper and dissertation proposal before the end of the following semester. That is, only one period of probation will be allowed for the second prelim and the dissertation proposal.

Students are expected to maintain a cumulative GPA of at least 3.67 in substantive courses taken in Language Sciences after their third semester. If they do not, they are placed on probation, and may be dropped from the program if the GPA is not raised by the end of the probationary period. Exceptions may be approved by the Degree Programs Committee under unusual circumstances.


Faculty in Language Sciences are discouraged from giving out Incompletes, except in such cases as described in the University policy on Incompletes: (1) the student missed only a limited amount of work and can be expected to complete the work by the deadline (see below); (2) the student was unable to complete all of the work on time for reasons beyond the student’s control; and (3) the student performed at least satisfactorily on the completed work.

Graduate students who take an Incomplete must resolve it by the end of the next semester in residence (excluding summer session), or by an earlier deadline imposed by the instructor. If the Incomplete is not resolved by the deadline, the student will be placed on probation for one semester, and if it is not resolved at the end of that semester the student will be dropped from the program.

Graduate School Registration Block

It is Graduate School policy to put a hold on a graduate student’s registration when that student has excessive units of Incomplete, or has had an Incomplete for a long period of time. In such a case, the Language Sciences policy is that the student must petition the Degree Programs Committee to have the hold lifted. The petition must clearly set out a plan for finishing the necessary work. If the Degree Programs Committee grants the petition, the Director of Language Sciences contacts the Graduate School to authorize them to lift the hold. If the Degree Programs Committee does not grant the petition, the student must resolve the Incompletes according to the Graduate School’s instructions before being allowed to register.

Program Probation

Program probation is a warning to a student who is not making satisfactory progress in the Linguistics Ph.D. program. (Note that the graduate school has an additional, separate probation policy.) Program probation for grades or failure to make satisfactory progress lasts for one academic year (two consecutive semesters), while probation for an unsatisfactory prelim paper or unfinished Incompletes lasts for one semester (see above).

If a student on probation clears up the problem that led to probation within the time period allotted, nothing else happens, and the student can continue with the program.

If the student does not resolve the problem (e.g. raise the GPA or successfully complete a prelim), the student is dropped from the program at the end of the probationary period.


Possibilities for appeal consist of the following:

  • A student may appeal to the Degree Programs Committee for an extension of a deadline before the deadline has passed. (This has the advantage of avoiding probation if the extension is granted.)
  • A student on probation may appeal to the Degree Programs Committee for an extension of probation before the end of the probationary period.
  • If a student is dropped from the program, the student may appeal to the Degree Programs Committee for a reversal of the drop decision.
  • If the Degree Programs Committee decides negatively on any type of appeal, the student may appeal to the Language Sciences faculty as a whole. This is the final appeal.

In no case is there a guarantee that any appeal will be granted. The Degree Programs Committee and the faculty will consider each case individually on its merits.

In order to file an appeal, the student should send a letter (by email or in writing) to the Graduate Coordinator, who will distribute the appeal to the Degree Programs Committee. The letter should clearly state what action the student is requesting the committee to take, and provide brief information relevant to justifying the case.


If a student feels unfairly treated or aggrieved by faculty, staff, or another student, the University offers several avenues to resolve the grievance. Students’ concerns about unfair treatment are best handled directly with the person responsible for the objectionable action. If the student is uncomfortable making direct contact with the individual(s) involved, they should contact the Language Sciences Student Advisor and/or the Director of Language Sciences to try to resolve the situation. If the situation cannot be resolved informally, a formal written grievance can be filed. See the list below for the sequence of steps to follow.

For more information, see the Graduate School Academic Policies & Procedures: Grievances & Appeals

Procedures for proper accounting of student grievances:

  1. The student is encouraged to speak first with the person toward whom the grievance is directed to see if a situation can be resolved at this level.
  2. Should a satisfactory resolution not be achieved, the student should contact the Student Advisor or the Director of Language Sciences to discuss the grievance. The advisor or the director will facilitate problem resolution through informal channels and facilitate any complaints or issues of students. The first attempt is to help students informally address the grievance prior to any formal complaint. Students are also encouraged to talk with their faculty advisors regarding concerns or difficulties if necessary. University resources for sexual harassment, discrimination, disability accommodations, and other related concerns can be found on the UW Office of Equity and Diversity website: https://oed.wisc.edu/
  3. Other campus resources include:
  1. If the issue is not resolved to the student’s satisfaction, the student can submit a grievance, in writing, to the Director of Language Sciences, who shall serve as the Grievance Advisor, within 60 calendar days of the alleged unfair treatment. (If the student is uncomfortable filing the grievance with the Director, they may file it with the Student Advisor instead, who will then serve as the Grievance Advisor.)
  2. On receipt of a written complaint, a faculty committee will be convened by the Grievance Advisor to manage the grievance. The faculty committee will obtain a written response from the person toward whom the complaint is directed. This response will be shared with the person filing the grievance.
  3. The faculty committee will determine a decision regarding the grievance. The Grievance Advisor will report on the action taken by the committee in writing to both the student and the party toward whom the complaint was directed within 15 working days from the date the complaint was received.
  4. At this point, if either party (the student or the person toward whom the grievance is directed) is unsatisfied with the decision of the faculty committee, the party may file a written appeal. Either party has 10 working days to file a written appeal.
  5. Documentation of the grievance will be stored for at least 7 years. Significant grievances that set a precedent will be stored indefinitely.

The Graduate School has procedures for students wishing to appeal a grievance decision made at the program level. These policies are described in the Graduate School’s Academic Policies and Procedures: https://grad.wisc.edu/documents/grievances-and-appeals/


Note that the Graduate School may have separate or additional requirements that must be fulfilled, in addition to the ones listed above. See the Linguistics Graduate Guide for information on all Language Sciences and Graduate School requirements. The information provided here is a brief summary.