What does a research degree involve?

The MLitt (Master of Letters) and DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy) are research degrees for which the candidate writes a thesis and is examined by a viva voce (oral) examination. Candidates work under the guidance of a supervisor who is a specialist in their subject. Where two areas of expertise are essential, joint supervision is arranged.

The two degrees differ in:

  • the length of the thesis (MLitt – 50,000 words, DPhil – 80,000 words)
  • the rigour of the requirements

The thesis word-count includes notes, glossary, appendices, etc., but excludes the bibliography.

Entry requirements

All candidates for research degrees are initially registered as Probationary Research Students (PRS). Unless they already have a Master’s degree, they are normally required previously to have taken the MSt in Medieval and Modern Languages or an equivalent first-year course.

The MLitt thesis

The examiners of an MLitt thesis have to certify that:

  • the candidate possesses a good general knowledge of the field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls
  • the candidate shows competence in investigating the chosen topic
  • the candidate has made a worthwhile contribution to knowledge or understanding in the field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls
  • results have been presented in a lucid and scholarly manner

The DPhil thesis

The examiners of a DPhil thesis have to certify that:

  • the candidate possesses a good general knowledge of the field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls
  • the candidate has made a significant and substantial contribution in the field of learning within which the subject of the thesis falls
  • the results have been presented in a lucid and scholarly manner

The DPhil demands a more detailed knowledge of the field of study. While an MLitt candidate need only show competence in investigating the topic, the DPhil candidate is required to make a significant and substantial contribution to the subject studied. In Modern Languages this may involve work on unpublished documents or manuscripts in foreign libraries or archives. A thesis may also be an edition of a text, if the task is complex enough and the introductory material sufficiently detailed. An MLitt candidate may gain the degree by reassessing published material.

“I’m now in the final year of my DPhil on 1970’s Russian literature. I started as an MPhil student in 2004 […] I chose Oxford because of the flexibility of the two-year MPhil in European Litearture [now Modern Languages], with its mixture of taught elements and research. The essay portfolios in the first year helped devise my own questions and approaches, while the thesis in the second year was the ideal way to find out whether research was for me in the long term. It worked…”

Final year DPhil student

Thesis Language

MLitt and DPhil theses are normally written in English, but may be written in an appropriate language other than English. Permission to write in a language other than English should be sought from the Director of Graduate Studies, well in advance of the submission of the thesis. Similarly, the viva voce examination is normally conducted in English, though in exceptional circumstances permission may be given by the Academic Policy Committee for it to be held in the relevant foreign language.

Progression

Candidates for a research degree are initially admitted to Probationary Research Student (PRS) status, and must apply for admission to full MLitt or DPhil status by the third term in PRS status. You must submit a research proposal and a piece of written work, about 10,000 words long, which should be either a chapter of your thesis or an essay related to it. These will be read by two assessors who will then meet you to discuss them. They may recommend your immediate admission to DPhil status or may ask you to submit revised materials so that your application may be reconsidered later.

A further formal assessment of your progress takes place when you apply for confirmation of your DPhil status. This must be done by the sixth term after your admission to PRS status. Again, two assessors will read a draft chapter of your thesis and discuss it with you.

The intention behind these requirements is not to place obstacles in your way but to let you discuss your work with scholars other than your supervisor and benefit from other perspectives on your work.

Duration of study

The MLitt and DPhil each require a minimum of two years’ study. For the MLitt, no further fees are payable where a student takes longer than two years to complete the thesis. Students for the DPhil pay a maximum of three years’ fees. Graduates should take care, in consultation with their supervisors, to avoid unrealistically ambitious topics and to choose topics that can be completed within three or at most four years of full-time research. Where there are exceptional reasons for delay in completing the thesis, limited extensions of time may be granted on application to the Director of Graduate Studies.

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