The MPhil in English Studies


Course Structure

There are four taught elements to the MPhil in English Studies, in addition to work on a dissertation, which lasts the full length of the MPhil, and postgraduate research seminars.

‘A’ seminars are collaboratively taught, typically by a pair of lecturers each term, and are cross-period; ‘B’ seminars are usually individually taught and have a specialist focus; both are research led. ‘C’ courses provide students with discipline-specific academic skills. ‘D’ courses are for students wishing to specialise in Medieval or Renaissance literature.

In Michaelmas (autumn) term, students are typically required to take one ‘A’ seminar, one ‘B’ seminar, and the ‘C’ course. In Lent (spring) term, students take one ‘A’ seminar, two ‘B’ seminars, and the ‘C’ course. In Easter (summer) term, students focus on the dissertation.

Students specialising in Medieval or Renaissance literature take a slightly different route in Michaelmas, on which, see the information about the ‘D’ course given below.

Full course details and reading lists are provided to successful applicants on admission.

‘A’ Seminars

The programme of ‘A’ seminars, which runs across the first two terms, encourages students to develop the kind of conceptual and theoretical sophistication required for framing postgraduate-level dissertation projects. ‘A’ seminars aim to engage students working on historically divergent projects with key questions for literary research, stimulating wide-ranging and in-depth conversations with a broad range of faculty members. Examples of ‘A’ seminars that might be available include:

  • Poetry and Poetics
  • Politics and Culture: Capitalism, Ecology, Decolonisation
  • Material Texts
  • Literature and Philosophy
  • Narrative and Its Mediations
  • Bodies, Performance, Gender

Each seminar runs six, 90-minute classes in Michaelmas, and six in Lent; students can elect to follow the same seminar across both terms, or choose a different seminar each term. ‘A’ seminars are intensively taught with set programmes of reading and may involve student presentations and other kinds of participatory activity. However they do not involve any coursework. Sign-up for seminars is in September.

‘B’ Seminars

Alongside ‘A’ seminars, students elect to follow ‘B’ seminars in their areas of interest. Characteristically, these seminars range widely in topic, for example, from Middle-English contemplation to contemporary American fiction, from the literary history of human rights to writers’ notebooks. The Faculty has produced an indicative list of 'B' seminars as an example of options that might be available. Information about a given year’s seminar provision, seminar content and timetabling is provided to offer-holders over the summer prior to admission.

Each ‘B’ seminar comprises five, 2-hour classes per term. Students opt for one ‘B’ seminar in Michaelmas and two in Lent. Coursework essays are attached to ‘B’ seminars as described below in the section on Assessment.

Students may if they wish substitute one or two ‘B’ seminars for equivalent courses from another Faculty. Borrowed courses will be subject to availability in the host MPhil and to timetabling constraints. Students may have to satisfy specific requirements in the host MPhil (such as a language qualification, prior undergraduate training in the field).

‘C’ Course

The ‘C’ course provides training vital to postgraduate researchers in the humanities. It is taught by means of lectures and associated workshops based in our libraries.

The ‘C’ course is compulsory unless students are following a ‘D’ course, in which case it is available but optional. Any work towards the course is not formally assessed.

‘D’ Course

The ‘D’ course runs in Michaelmas term and is taken only by those students wishing to specialise in Medieval or Renaissance literature.

Students intending to opt for the ‘D’ course should indicate as much on their application form when applying for the MPhil.

‘D’ Course: Medieval Literature

This course is intended primarily to give students a practical introduction to the study of English manuscripts in the period 1100-1500. Students work with original manuscripts from Cambridge collections, selected to illustrate various aspects of the subject. The course provides the foundation for the knowledge and skills necessary to read, transcribe and study medieval texts in their manuscript form. It provides the technical, practical and intellectual expertise necessary in the growing field of manuscript studies and medieval handwritten culture, covering a wide range of topics, including writing, cataloguing and circulation of medieval books and texts.

To keep the workload manageable, the Medieval ‘D’ course runs in the place of ‘A’ seminars in Michaelmas term. Students following the Medieval ‘D’ course also take one ‘B’ seminar, and have the option of attending the ‘C’ course. (In Lent, all students take one ‘A’ seminar, two ‘B’ seminars, and the ‘C’ course.)

The knowledge and skills taught during the course is assessed by means of an exercise in Textual and Related Studies. For this exercise, students are required to choose, in consultation with the course convenors, a manuscript from a Cambridge library either (i) in Middle English or (ii) in another language but made or used in England between c.1100 - c.1550. Students then write a full codicological description of the manuscript, and a diplomatic transcription of a short passage from it. Should students wish, a short extract from these projects can be published as a blog on The Manuscripts Lab at the end of the examination period.

‘D’ course: Renaissance Literature

This course equips students with the skills and understanding needed to study early modern manuscript material and to conduct research using material printed in the period 1500-1700. Students attend sessions on Renaissance palaeography and textual studies, in addition to the full quota of 'A' and 'B' seminars taken by other students, and with the option of also attending the 'C' course.

The 'Renaissance Palaeography' seminar teaches students to read the scripts in which Renaissance literature was written. It introduces techniques for analysing manuscripts and for making deductions of literary consequence from handwritten material.

The 'Introduction to Textual Studies' seminar advises students how to locate and gain access to manuscripts and early modern printed material and understand the contexts of their production; to understand how early modern printed books are made, and how to describe and analyse them using the principles of descriptive and textual bibliography; to explore the use of early modern printed books, including features such as binding and annotation. The course will, where possible, be ‘hands-on’, making use of the University Library’s collections.

The course overall enables literary study informed by a clear understanding of the particularities of the production, transmission, and editing of early modern texts. The Palaeography component of the Renaissance ‘D’ course is assessed by means of a pass/fail test of students’ skills.


Dissertations are long-form research essays prepared independently by students under the guidance of a Faculty supervisor. Students meet supervisors one-to-one throughout the MPhil, and with particular intensity in Easter (summer) term, which is devoted to completing the dissertation.

Students are asked to submit a dissertation title and proposed project outline as part of the application process (the research proposal).

Providing we can supervise and examine it, we will consider any proposal for a dissertation project falling within the general field of English Studies very broadly defined, from 1066 to the present day.

Please note that decisions about admissions and supervision arrangements are made by Faculty committees, and not by prospective supervisors; however, we always welcome enquiries about our course.


Multiple specialised pathways are possible through the MPhil in English Studies, depending on students’ interests.

For example, a student wishing to write their dissertation on contemporary elegy might match an ‘A’ seminar such as ‘Poetry and Poetics’ with ‘B’ seminars such as ‘Cultures of the Anthropocene’, ‘Emily Dickinson and the Archive’, or ‘Renaissance Lyric’, and so on, subject to the seminars available in any given year.

A student wishing to write their dissertation about John Skelton and specialise in medieval literature might opt, in Michaelmas, for the ‘D’ course (Medieval) and a ‘B’ seminar such as ‘East Anglia: Literature, Religion, Culture, and the Wider World’, and in Lent, for an ‘A’ seminar such as ‘Poetry and Poetics’ and ‘B’ seminars such as ‘Medieval Literature and Visual Culture’ and ‘Thinking with Classical Antiquity’, again, subject to the seminars made available in any given year.

There is also ample scope within the course for those students wishing to pursue later period pathways, for example, in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic literature , or Modern or Contemporary literature.


Students’ progress throughout the MPhil is supported by regular meetings with their dissertation supervisor, who reads and gives feedback on coursework essays as well as the short written exercise and dissertation.

Examined elements are as follows:

(i) Short Written Exercise

A short essay submitted in Michaelmas term on a topic directly related to the dissertation. Assessed as a pass/resubmission by the supervisor. Does not contribute to the overall mark for the MPhil.

(ii) Coursework Submissions

Either two 5,000-word essays related to work pursued in the ‘B’ seminars, one submitted after Michaelmas term and the other after Lent term, or (for Medieval specialisation) one exercise in Textual and Related Studies or one 5,000-word essay on a Medieval ‘B’ seminar submitted after Michaelmas term, and one 5,000-word essay relating to a ‘B’ seminar submitted after Lent term. Work for the Renaissance specialisation is assessed by a pass-fail test only.

Topics are chosen independently by students in consultation with seminar convenors and dissertation supervisors. Worth 20% of the overall mark for the lower-scoring coursework submission; 30% for the higher-scoring coursework submission.