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MIT Linguistics: Department of Linguistics & Philosophy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Graduate Program

General Exam


See also "Frequently Asked Questions about the Generals Paper requirement".


In the second and third years, students pass a "General Exam". The General Exam is composed of three parts: (i) successful completion of the two Workshop subjects (24.959, 24.969); (ii) the writing of two research papers ("Generals Papers"); (iii) oral exams based on, but not strictly limited to, these papers. One paper should be submitted by the last day of classes of the student's fourth semester. The other should be submitted by the last day of classes of the fifth semester. The two Generals papers must be original research papers and must report research on two distinct topics in two distinct subdisciplines of linguistics. The subdisciplines include phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, language acquisition, language processing or any other area of linguistics, so long as there is a substantial theoretical-linguistic component to the Generals paper. The purpose of the Generals requirement is to develop a broad research competence in linguistics before proceeding to dissertation work.

Research towards the first Generals paper begins right after the 1st-year coursework. At the end of their 2nd semester, students sign up for 24.922 for the summer and choose a faculty member who advises them on their research plans, monitors their progress, and assigns credit for 24.922. Through the following fall, they continue to work on the first Generals and make related presentations in a suitable forum (e.g. reading group, topics class, lab meeting). This work should reach the state of a detailed handout or first draft by the time the student enrolls in the Spring Workshop. Similarly, research towards the second Generals should begin no later than the 4th semester and progress substantially during the second summer (again supervised by a faculty member who assigns credit for 24.922), resulting in a handout or draft prior to the Fall Workshop.

The two required workshops provide students with a forum for presenting and discussing their Generals research as each of their papers is being written. Students present their work to their fellow students and to the instructors, and discuss each other’s work in depth. Each enrolled student will typically give two lengthy presentations each semester. The Workshops provide practice in presentation techniques and constructive discussion, and particularly in explaining research results and background assumptions to an audience composed of specialists in different subdisciplines of linguistic theory. Some Workshop sessions may also be dedicated to general professional skills and career advice.

The two oral exams are conducted by a committee of three faculty members and are scheduled as soon as is feasible after the submission of each written paper. The makeup of the Generals Committee is determined by the Chair of the Linguistics Program, to whom students provide a list of committee preferences. Two of the committee members serve as advisors on the papers in their area of expertise, and work closely with the student to ensure good progress and success. Students are encouraged to invite additional faculty members into their committees as their work progresses.

Given that graduate student research is the central focus of the MIT Linguistics Program, timely progress on the Generals papers is expected to be a top priority for each student. Students who are not ready to defend their papers by the beginning of the 5th and 6th semester respectively are expected to cut down substantially on any commitments not directly related to Generals research and writing. This includes teaching duties, which will be postponed until the Generals requirement is completed. Successful defense of the first Generals paper is a prerequisite to registration for the 6th semester of the PhD program, and passage of the entire General Exam is a prerequisite to registration for the 7th semester of the PhD program.