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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 two Workshop subjects (24.991); (ii) the writing of two research papers ("Generals Papers"); (iii) oral exams ("Generals Defenses") 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 sixth 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. Students are expected to begin work on this paper during the summer preceding the second year. Through the following year, they continue to work on the first Generals within the context of the 2nd-year Workshop 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 end of the 3rd semester, and should be polished for a defense during the 4th semester. A similar timetable characterizes work on the second Generals paper starting in the summer preceding the third year and continuing through the third year of the program.

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 several 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. Students may choose either Fall or Spring workshops, subject to the Common Curriculum requirements that at least one workshop must be completed by the end of the second year and that the second workshop must be completed by the end of the third year.

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 Linguistics Graduate Program Director, to whom students provide a list of committee preferences. It is not uncommon for a student to work most closely on a particular generals paper with faculty who are not members of their Generals Committee. All students, however, should meet periodically with the members of their committee to ensure good progress and success. When appropriate, students may 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 end of the 4th and 6th semesters 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. Students who have not completed their first Generals paper (i.e. defended or scheduled a defense) by the beginning of the 5th semester will receive a departmental letter of concern, followed by a Warning from the Dean of the Graduate School if the requirement is still outstanding at the end of the semester. A student who has not completed both Generals by the beginning of the 7th semester will receive a departmental letter of concern, followed by a Warning from the Dean of the Graduate School if the requirement is still outstanding at the end of the semester. Upon receipt of a Warning letter, registration will be denied for the following semester if program requirements have not been met.