Former PhD Guidelines

What follows on this page are our former guidelines, which were replaced in March 2024. However, some students who are partway through the QE/TP process may find it most suitable to follow the earlier version. The main difference between the two versions is the schedule for the QE and the length of the thesis proposal (the new guidelines require a shorter proposal). 

A completed PhD consists of coursework, qualifying exams and thesis/project proposal approval, independent research and analysis, and an oral thesis/project defense. PhD research in Cultural Studies may take the form of Research Creation, Community-based Research, “traditional” monograph-style PhD, or Portfolio PhD.

Queen’s University is only able to fund PhD students for four years; hence, the following guidelines offer a plan for completing the PhD in that time. We recognize that it is difficult to complete a PhD in four years. Family circumstances, methodological demands, employment responsibilities, and other factors — including the effects of the pandemic — may pose challenges. Given those realities, supervisors are earnestly entreated to help their students pick a manageable scope for their work. And students and supervisors should regularly consult the timeline stated here, in order to ensure that funding does not run out before PhD work is complete. Students and supervisors should feel free to contact the Director(s) of Cultural Studies for assistance in adjusting this recommended timeline to their particular circumstances.

Students should consult with their supervisor(s) about course selection. All doctoral students are expected to take CUST 902 (Cultural Studies Colloquium) and 4 one-term (3.0 unit) graduate courses in Year 1, including CUST 803 and at least one other CUST course. Other courses may be within CUST or selected from graduate courses taught in various units across the university. It is our hope that some courses and assignments will serve to broaden students’ knowledge, while others will lead in a more focused way towards the Qualifying Exam and thesis/project work.

*Doctoral students with a Queen's MA in Cultural Studies need only take two one-term courses, plus CUST 902.

Committee Basics
April Year 1: Confirm supervisor(s)
30 August Year 1: Confirm committee via
PhD Form A
If changes desired later, resubmit
PhD Form A

In April of Year 1, the student revisits the PhD thesis or project they proposed upon application, confirming whether this is indeed how they wish to proceed and whether their initial supervisor is still the best choice. If a new supervisor is needed, the student works together with their initial supervisor and/or the Cultural Studies Director to identify a suitable replacement. A student may, with the agreement of the supervisor, seek a co-supervisor.° In consultation with their supervisor(s), and as their work comes into focus through their preparation for the Qualifying Exam, the student then invites two other faculty members to serve on their committee.* Where it is desired for a community advisor to be added to the committee, the student or supervisor should consult with the Director.‡

The Supervisory Committee should be confirmed no later than 30 August of the first year of study by submission of PhD Form A: Constitution of Supervisory Committee. This committee, barring necessary changes, will be in place for the duration of the development of the PhD thesis or project.

°Co-supervisors may be appropriate in situations where faculty members wish to work closely together in a non-hierarchical way, and/or where their roles are clearly defined and complementary. However, degree progress is often smoother with a single supervisor who is responsible for overall direction and timelines, and two committee members who take a secondary role, advising as necessary. 

*One member of the supervisory committee can be unaffiliated with Cultural Studies. That said, if a prospective member wishes to be affiliated, the process is quite straightforward: contact 

‡ “Additional examiners” can participate during the development of the work, or join at the time of the PhD Oral Examination. It should be noted that at present limited funding is available to support such participation, but Cultural Studies is advocating for more support.

QE Basics
Spring Year 1: review PhD goals
Summer Year 1: draft Annotated Bibliography and QE Proposal
Fall Year 2: augment and revise AB, QE Proposal
End of Fall Term Year 2: write QE

The Qualifying Examination (QE) is designed to ground the thesis/project in relevant communities of theory and practice, and to help the student develop critical perspectives from which to make original contributions. Its focus and scope is individually tailored to the needs of the student in relation to their background and their proposed PhD research. The QE is not a rough draft of the Thesis/Project Proposal, but rather preparation for it. It is also not a "Comprehensive" exam that asks the student to read a predetermined list or prescribed canon. It is conceived of as an opportunity to fill in gaps or to target areas where deeper knowledge is required.

Note that the dates mentioned in this section and the following are not deadlines per se, but we have devised this timeline to ensure that students have two complete years for their PhD research within the four-year funding window, and we highly encourage students and supervisors to follow it.

In April and May of Year 1, the student reflects on the goals of their thesis/project and the shapes it might assume, and meets at least once with their supervisor(s) to define the form and scope of the QE — that is, to identify what they need to add to the foundations they already have. In June, July, and August, the student works on the Annotated Bibliography and QE Proposal. In September and October of Year 2 they augment and modify the AB and QE Proposal with the guidance of their committee, and in November or December they undertake the exam. See chart above to clarify workflow timeline.

In essence, the shape of the QE Proposal is something like this: “Because I wish to do X for my thesis/project, I need to do (or have been doing) Y reading and want to do Z critique, synthesis, or analysis for my qualifying exam.” “Y,” to be documented via an Annotated Bibliography, is the content the student proposes will be most necessary to “qualify” them to write a strong thesis/project proposal and proceed to their thesis/project (“X”). Sometimes Y may be new area(s) of theory, methodology, scholarship, cultural production, social phemonena, or practice (etc.); in other cases the student may extend or deepen frameworks or perspectives already somewhat familiar to them. The exam may well engage with some areas of the thesis/project in detail rather than addressing the big picture. In some cases, the exam process may integrate artistic work. Students are advised that many thesis/project proposals are weak in terms of methodology: it may well be that some attention should be paid during the QE process to how you are going to gather or interpret knowledge. Some supervisors suggest dividing the QE preparation into two or three distinct areas of focus. “Z” in turn is the critical, synthetic, or analytical perspective the student will demonstrate through the exam itself; by the time the final draft of the QE Proposal is submitted, Z will be formulated into 2 or 3 suggested questions the student feels prepared to address.

Students start consulting with their supervisor about appropriate choice of reading/viewing/learning by May, and share a draft or beginning bibliography (at this point only partly or roughly annotated) and first draft of a QE Proposal (ca. 1000 words) with the supervisor no later than 30 July. By 30 August, the student submits a second draft of the QE Proposal and bibliography to the entire committee. The bibliography-in-process shared at this time likely includes 30-50 items, of which 20 or so may be annotated (it can include artworks, exhibitions, and so on, as appropriate, and will often be divided into topical sections). For guidance on annotated bibliographies, students may consult this template from Student Academic Success Services or visit the library for additional resources; the expectation for our purpose is an annotation on each work of about 100-300 words in length, including a brief description of the main argument/contribution and some critical review of the work’s utility or effectiveness and relation to other work or the student’s project.

The committee meets with the student by 30 September to discuss the QE Proposal and AB, and to make suggestions for preparation during the time remaining before the exam. This meeting provides an opportunity to check areas needing attention, suggest scholarship and other work the student should read or engage with for the exam, and hear about the student’s experience of the process thus far. In the case of a Research-Creation project, the committee decides on whether an artistic production component will be part of the exam. Also at this time, all parties agree on dates for the exam to be written.

At least ten working days before the agreed-upon start time for the examination, and no later than 30 November, the student submits to the committee via email the final QE Proposal, the final and fully annotated version of the AB of at least 30 items (likely with both additions and deletions since the earlier draft, reflecting priorities agreed upon at the committee meeting), and two or three suggested questions they are prepared to answer for the examination.

Referring to the student’s suggested questions, the committee crafts a question or questions for the exam, which they send to the student on the date mutually agreed upon. The general expectation is an answer of 5000 to 7000 words, not including footnotes. If the examination includes artistic work, the committee will adjust this word count accordingly; that is, the production component is not to be considered over and above the discursive component. The student has ten working days to complete the exam (though accommodations can be made in advance for a longer period if work or other responsibilities intervene). The student distributes their answer to all committee members.

Within ten working days of the deadline for the examination answer, each examiner including the supervisor(s) fills out PhD Form B including comments on the exam. The supervisor determines the decision based on a majority of the evaluations and notifies the student (if the result is unclear, the supervisor may consult with the committee). They then pass on all copies of Form B to the student, with copies to the Cultural Studies office, along with PhD Form C. If the student receives a "Revisions required" outcome, the supervisor consults immediately with the other examiners to specify the changes they expect. The supervisor sends these instructions promptly to the student, and the student has 10 working days to complete the revisions and resubmit (the same process with Forms B and C is followed again, as above). If the student fails the exam (on their first attempt or after revisions), they have one chance to rewrite it within three months of the committee decision. On the rewrite, the only possible outcomes are “Pass” and “Fail.” If the outcome at this stage is “Fail,” the committee will initiate the process of recommending withdrawal on academic grounds. Such a recommendation may be appealed by the student (see SGSPA General Regulations).

Proposal Basics
30-40 pages (contribution, contexts, methods, outline)
+ bibliography, timeline, and (as needed) documentation plan, budget, & GREB
Defended before committee by 30 June, Year 2

Following the Qualifying Exam (that is, by January of Year 2), the student turns their attention to the thesis/project proposal. Examples are available from the Cultural Studies office. The format of this document may vary, and is determined in consultation with the supervisor and/or committee, but the proposal should articulate the specific contribution or intervention the student is prepared to make to established or ongoing work in the field(s). The general expectation is for a document of 30-40 pages (accompanied by a bibliography which need not be annotated) that makes clear the theoretical, methodological, and substantive elements and structure of the thesis/project. Students may include material from their QE exam in their thesis/project proposal as appropriate.

Students whose work will involve community collaborators must show that they have identified and communicated with appropriate participants, and they must justify their choice of participants given the theoretical, political, methodological, and practical contexts of their thesis or project. Research Creation students will describe how they conceive the relationship between the project and the written component. In consultation with the supervisory committee, a Research Creation dissertation proposal may integrate artistic production. If it does, the ratio between production and the written component will be discussed and determined by the committee and the length of the written component will be adjusted accordingly: that is, the production component is not to be considered over and above the written component. Students planning a Portfolio PhD will explain the rationale for this format.

The student should aim to have a draft of the proposal to their supervisor by 30 March of Year 2, a second draft to the whole committee by 30 April, and a final version to the committee by 30 May, to be defended by 30 June. If this timetable is not feasible, the proposal should be defended by 30 August at the latest. It is imperative that the student have two full years at minimum to work on the PhD thesis or project.

*All proposals will include a timeline.

*Projects that require expenditures will include a budget.

*Please note that GREB (Ethics) approval can take months. Well before the proposal defense, students who are planning to conduct interviews or work in any way with individuals or communities should do the initial CORE training online and consult with their supervisor and possibly the Unit REB about the appropriate timing for full GREB application.

*Students whose work includes community-based activity, performance art, etc., must indicate in their proposal how this work will be documented.

As the thesis or project proposal is approaching completion, the Supervisor schedules the proposal defense and finds a Chair for it by filling out PhD Form D. At least ten working days prior to the scheduled proposal defense, the student distributes the proposal to all committee members and the Chair. The proposal defense focuses on the relevant theoretical, methodological and substantive areas germane to the student's program. The committee assesses the student's understanding of the discipline, the viability, scope and coherence of the proposal, and the preparedness of the candidate to undertake the proposed thesis or project, and offers suggestions for refinements or changes as appropriate.

Also at the proposal defense, committee members assess the timeline and (if applicable) budget, and each committee member clarifies what they understand their consultative role to be going forward. Some discussion of plans for the student to share their work in progress (at conferences, exhibitions, etc.) is also appropriate at this time. The examination outcome is determined by majority vote, reported by the Chair via PhD Form E. In cases where the committee wishes to pass the proposal but requires a few clearly-defined changes (“Pass with Committee Directives”), the changes are documented by the Chair and effectively become part of the proposal; no re-examination is required. In cases where the committee wishes to evaluate a new version of the proposal (“Revise and Resubmit”), the basic components of the expected revision are summarized by the supervisor and emailed to the student and the Cultural Studies office within three working days. The student has one opportunity to re-write the proposal and defend the revision within two months of the first proposal examination meeting. The defense of a revised proposal can only result in a “Pass” or a “Fail.” If the student does not defend the revision within that time period, or if the outcome of the revised proposal defense is “Fail,” the committee initiates the process of recommending withdrawal on academic grounds. Such a recommendation may be appealed by the student (see SGSPA General Regulations).

Upon successful completion of the Qualifying Exam and Proposal Defense, the program administrator prepares and submits a request to the School of Graduate Studies to add the “Comprehensive Examination Completed” notation as an Academic Milestone on the student’s transcript. 

The supervisor and committee are responsible for guiding the student on matters of scope, methodology, originality, and structure. Students are encouraged to look at other PhD dissertations and projects done in the program for an general sense of the scale, organization, and ambition expected. The evaluation and format of the final product of the PhD are governed by the School of Graduate Studies. More details on doctoral degree completion on SGSPA website.

It is up to each committee member to decide the nature of their involvement with the thesis/project. Roles of committee members are generally discussed and clarified at the proposal defense. A committee member might, for example, offer guidance on drafts of components of the project related to their expertise, and leave feedback on other components to others. It is general practice for the entire supervisory committee to be given an opportunity to read/view and “sign off on” the entire penultimate draft of the thesis/project a minimum of twelve weeks before the anticipated defense date (this timing should allow for feedback and resulting revisions before the work is submitted – as required – 25 working days before the defense date: View details on SGSPA doctoral oral thesis examinations.

As PhD work nears completion, the supervisor should (in consultation with the student) identify and invite two examiners to join the Oral Examination who have not been involved in the work’s development: one from within Queen’s (they may be CUST-affiliated or not) and one from outside Queen’s (the “external examiner,” an expert in the area from another institution). All examiners other than the Supervisor must be “arms’ length”; for definition of that see oral thesis exam form. If you are not sure how to complete this form, please refer to our Guide or contact with questions. The examination is typically three hours long, and may result in

  • pass (which may include minor revisions to be made following the defense),
  • referral (major revisions required, possibly followed by a second examination), or
  • failure (only possible if the thesis was already referred) (View SGSPA academic calendar general regulations page).

Following a successful examination, students must continue to pay tuition until an electronic copy of the thesis, in PDF format revised as requested by the Thesis Examining Committee and finally approved by the supervisor, is submitted to the School of Graduate Studies through the E-Thesis Submission process in QSpace, Queen's Research Repository.

We urge all students to return for Convocation to be congratulated by the Admin Team and your colleagues and committee. Intellectually and emotionally, the PhD is an enormous challenge; it is therefore a tremendous achievement. We are proud of each and every one of our graduates.

The following table offers an overview of the stages of the PhD. 


Year Fall Winter Spring/Summer
Year One

Two courses + CUST 902

Apply for external funding

Two courses + CUST 902

​Begin thinking about focus of Qualifying Exam.

By 30 April: review and reflect upon project as proposed upon admission, confirm that current supervisor is best match

By 30 May: meet with supervisor to discuss goals/timeline for QE

By 30 June: submit annual report to SGS

By 30 July: draft QE Proposal and begin Annotated Bibliography; discuss with supervisor; approach additional committee members if not yet confirmed

By 30 August: confirm committee composition, send second draft QE Proposal & AB to committee

Year Two

Apply for external funding if needed

By 30 September: meet with committee to discuss QE work so far, set date for final Proposal/AB submission and exam

By end of Week 10 of classes (or earlier): submit final QE Proposal, proposed questions, and AB to committee. After submission the committee has 10 working days to formulate exam question/s.

By end of Week 12 of classes (or earlier): commence Qualifying Exam. The exam is written over 10 working days. It is up to student and committee whether to undertake it during term (e.g. weeks 11-12 – which means submission of Proposal and AB by end of week 8) or immediately after term, but it is to be completed by mid-December

Prepare for GREB if applicable (it is necessary to start this process – i.e., do the Core training, consult with classmates and faculty, etc. – before the proposal defense)

By 30 March: submit draft of thesis/project proposal to supervisor

By 30 April: supervisor to have provided feedback by email or in meeting


By 30 May: submit thesis/project proposal to committee

By 30 June: defend thesis/project proposal, submit annual report

Complete GREB if applicable

Begin PhD research

Year Three

Continue PhD work

Apply for external funding if needed

Apply for conferences and seek other ways to share your work

Continue PhD work

Apply for conferences and seek other ways to share your work

Continue PhD work

Consider taking a micro-course
Year Four

Continue PhD work

Apply for postdocs, jobs

Complete PhD work

Select external examiner

Be sure to allow time for your entire committee to review the penultimate draft of your thesis/project and for your own final round of revisions in response to their comments.

Schedule defense (thesis must be circulated to committee in final form 25 working days before the defense)

Defend your PhD

Make any final required revisions

Submit final thesis/documentation to QSpace

Throughout Stay in touch with your committee
Pursue funding opportunities as available
Attend pertinent events at Queen's
Consult and share work with fellow students
Reach out to potential colleagues, audiences, and supporters via conferences, community events, etc.