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Degree Requirements

Doctorate of Technical Communication and Rhetoric

This page details the major milestones to graduation, relevant forms, and other information about degree requirements for the PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric.


The TCR PhD requires a minimum of 60 approved semester credits beyond a Master’s degree. In your first two years of the PhD program you will complete your coursework (36 of 60 credits). In order to make sure that you are taking courses that will count toward your PhD degree, be sure to consult with the Director of Graduate Studies (Dr. Jared Colton) on a regular basis. Please note that coursework used to fulfill the requirements of a Master’s degree may not be used to fulfill the requirements for this PhD program.

The remaining 24 credits (of 60) will be comprised of your Research Internship (ENGL 7900; 6 credits) and Dissertation Research (7970; 18 credits). In addition to the minimum 60 credits of coursework, you must take Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training, a brief online training on ethical conduct in research that the university requires of all PhD students.

Supervisory Committee

When you complete your 36 credits of coursework, you must form a Supervisory Committee composed of faculty members willing to supervise your Comprehensive Exam and dissertation. This committee will consist of a chair (aka major professor) and two members from within the core TCR faculty (Profs. Chen, Colton, Edenfield, McLaughlin, Moeller, Pollak, and Walton), a fourth member from within the department but outside the core TCR faculty, and a fifth member from outside the department. All members of this committee must have doctoral degrees and be approved by the Associate Vice Provost of Graduate Studies in accordance with the Utah State University General Catalog. Once you have received verbal commitments from faculty willing to serve on your committee, immediately inform the Director of Graduate Studies in order to make sure the official paperwork is completed. 

Research Internship

ENGL 7900 allows you to apply workplace field research theory and methods in an actual workplace setting. The questions that follow define the research internship, state prerequisites prior to beginning the internship, identify the time requirement, and outline student and supervisor responsibilities.

The research internship requires primary research—the systematic collection of information, data, or specific other source material, or the carrying out of research which can only be done in a specific location. Broadly defined, this component of our PhD program exists to:

  • Provide you with research opportunities outside the context of the graduate coursework and immerse you in the processes of an actual professional communication culture.
  • Involve you in primary research related to how professionals communicate in the workplace.
  • Allow you to practice identifying, collecting, and analyzing evidence of specific communicative acts that frame professional communication.

Although the list below is not comprehensive, possible research projects could be envisioned in one or more of the following ways:

  • Working for an extended period of time on-site in an organization as a participant-observer (e.g., a traditional internship with a research component).
  • Working for an organization as a consultant, not necessarily at the physical site of the organization (e.g., telecommuting, again with a research component).
  • Visiting the site of an organization regularly over a period of time as an observer, gathering data about communication as it happens (e.g., sitting in on meetings, monitoring email conversations, interviewing people who work in the organization) or studying the on-site archives (print or electronic) of the organization, but not necessarily operating as a productive member of the organization.
  • Visiting a library or other archival site regularly over time to conduct primary research on a particular record of professional communication.

Prerequisites to the Research Internship Project

You will need to complete the following steps prior to beginning the research internship:

  1. Complete 7410 (fall).
  2. Complete 7000 (spring).
  3. Develop an acceptable proposal with research questions.
  4. Select a research supervisor from your Supervisory Committee.
  5. Receive approval of the project by the selected research supervisor.

You should aim to complete the research internship as soon as possible after completing your fourth semester. You will then give a public report (presentation) on your internship and how it connects to your dissertation in your fifth semester. This should be scheduled with your dissertation committee chair.

The research internship must be completed and graded before you may register for dissertation credits.

Research Internship Requirements

Research Internships constitute six credits of your program of study. To earn these six credits, you should plan to work approximately 300 hours on the research project. These 300 hours should include the time spent at the research site and work completed there, time spent collecting and analyzing data, and time spent creating the required research internship documentation.

Student and supervisor responsibilities for the research internship are as follows:

Student Supervisor
Develops proposal, including timeline for documentation and project completion. Approves proposal; agrees to supervise.
Writes and maintains work documentation, including required progress report. Reviews documentation and responds to progress report.
Consults with supervisor on a regular basis in one or more of the following ways:
  • Email correspondence
  • Telephone conversations
  • Face-to-face meetings
  • On-site visits
Provides consultation, as needed and as appropriate to the student’s fieldwork project. Typically, supervisor and student will consult on a bi-weekly schedule, but this schedule may be modified, as the supervisor deems necessary.
Writes final fieldwork report, which may take a variety of forms (for example, publication-ready article, pilot study, dissertation chapter). Assesses report and determines fieldwork experience grade.
Presents the fieldwork orally, with visual aids, in a public forum (usually a classroom in the English Department with faculty and other students in attendance). Assesses oral presentation

The Qualifying Examination

At the end of your first year in the PhD program, you must pass a Qualifying Exam, which is a formal evaluation of your progress by the Qualifying Exam committee. That committee consists of the entire TCR faculty, the Writing Program Director (if you are employed as Graduate Instructors), and the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS).

You are evaluated on the criteria listed below, based on the evidence of your transcript, your Curriculum Vitae (CV), your Program of Study worksheet, and your Annual Progress Report Form. You will also be evaluated based on testimony from the faculty who have observed your performance as a graduate student and Graduate Instructor.

Criterion Examples Source of Evaluation
Quality of written work in class Writing strong seminar papers and other class assignments Transcript, faculty observation
Quality of contributions to oral or online class discussions Participating frequently and well in class discussion, either face-to-face or online Transcript, faculty observation
Scholarly activity Submitting proposals and presenting conference papers; submitting journal articles; participating in grant proposals Transcript, faculty observation
Evidence of taking initiative and making progress towards the degree Completing a steady, committee-approved coursework load; approaching faculty members with ideas for research projects for the dissertation; actively working towards forming a Dissertation Supervisory Committee CV, annual review form, faculty observation
Participation in civic life of the department Attending workshops, guest speaker presentations, meetings, committees, and other events that PhD students are encouraged to attend CV, annual review form, faculty observation
Evidence of professional conduct Listening to advice from faculty, following suggestions, collaborating respectfully with faculty, fellow students, and staff Faculty observation
Ability to deliver on required tasks Completing assignments; meeting class and program deadlines; attending class; fulfilling teaching duties; avoiding Incomplete grades or completing them in a timely manner Transcript, faculty observation

Based on the criteria listed above and a meeting with you, the Qualifying Exam committee will make one of the following assessments:
Pass with Distinction You are excelling in all areas.
Pass You are performing satisfactorily, though there may be a few areas for improvement.
Pass with Probation You have underperformed significantly in some or all areas. The committee will provide a remediation plan—a list of needed improvements that you must make during the second year in order to advance to a third year in the program.
Dismiss You have failed to make adequate progress during the first year. The committee will recommend to the DGS that you be dismissed from the program.

If you receive a “pass with probation,” you will be evaluated again by the Qualifying Exam committee the following year. If you fail to meet the conditions of the remediation plan after a year of probation, the committee will recommend that you be dismissed from the program.

Once you have passed the Qualifying Exam, you will be reviewed each spring semester by your Supervisory Committee. If you have performed poorly since the previous review, the committee may recommend to the Qualifying Exam committee that you be put on probation or dismissed.

The Comprehensive Examination

At the end of your formal course work, you will take the Comprehensive Exam. The Comprehensive Exam allows you to meet the following learning objectives: 1) convey broad knowledge of your academic field and situate yourself as a scholar within that field, 2) convey deep knowledge about a particular area of the field that will become your area of expertise, 3) identify and read scholarship relevant to your interests beyond what you read for your coursework, 4) revisit the most relevant of your course readings, and 5) respond to questions about your field and your scholarship in the moment based on knowledge you've developed and internalized. The comprehensive exam has two parts: a written component and an oral component.

Written Component: For the written component, you will produce two essays of ~4,500-5,000 words each. These essays are due to your Supervisory Committee by April 10 or November 10 the semester after you finish your coursework. (Typically, students finish coursework in the spring, so most students will submit their essays by November 10 of the following fall semester.) Your essays should address the following prompts:

Essay 1: Please describe your research interests at two levels: 1) the broader 'umbrella' issue or problem that all of your work addresses and 2) two or three specific research questions that might inform particular research studies. Then situate your research interests within the broader field of technical communication and rhetoric. Characterize the field and explain why your work should be considered TCR scholarship. In what ways does your scholarly work inform the field of technical communication and rhetoric and extend existing scholarly conversations? Illustrate your answer with material from your reading list.

Essay 2: Design a 15-week undergraduate technical communication course on your area of scholarly expertise. You may design a traditional seminar course, an online course, or a hybrid course. Be sure to include the following details and a rationale behind each:

  - course description
  - student learning outcomes
  - syllabus (a brief outline of topics and assignments each week)
  - reading list
  - assignment descriptions

In your rationale, be sure to refer to specific works on your reading list for the best practices represented by research in the field. How will your course design engage students’ interest and prompt them to interact?

Oral Component: Your Supervisory Committee will review your essays before meeting with you for the oral component of the exam. This meeting will take place before the end of the semester in which you submit your essays. You should coordinate with the chair of your Supervisory Committee to schedule this meeting. (For students taking the Comprehensive Exam in the spring, the oral component of your Comprehensive Exam will typically occur during your annual review meeting.) Your Supervisory Committee members will provide feedback on your essays and will ask questions that allow you to expound upon your essays, to further characterize yourself as a scholar, to discuss the scholarship of the field, and to further demonstrate your knowledge. At the end of the oral component of the exam, the chair of your Supervisory Committee will notify you of the results. At this time you will be told whether you are ready to proceed to the dissertation research phase of the TCR program. If you do not pass the Comprehensive Exam, you will be allowed to retake the exam within one calendar year. If you do not pass the exam the second time, you will be asked to discontinue the program.

Reading List: Although you take the Comprehensive Exam at the completion of coursework, you should begin preparing for this exam upon starting the program. To complete the exam, you are responsible for generating a reading list and four contextualizing paragraphs which characterize the four themes below according to your own scholarly perspective. Given the scope of the Comprehensive Exam, the reading list should equally exemplify breadth and depth in the field.

You will work with your supervisory committee chair to develop a Comprehensive Exam reading list around four themes central to technical communication and rhetoric:

  • Theory & Rhetoric
  • Technology & Design
  • Pedagogy
  • Research Methods

For each of the four themes, you will write a contextualizing paragraph, defining the theme and situating your specific research focus within the broader theme. In these four paragraphs, you will contextualize and explain your approach to the themes, highlighting how your own research focus fits within the fields of technical communication and rhetoric and explaining your strategy for selecting appropriate works to include on the reading list.

You are strongly encouraged to draw from foundational, well-cited, and award-winning works relevant to technical communication and rhetoric, such as those that have won CCCC Technical and Scientific Communication awards, the Nell Ann Pickett award, and the Frank R. Smith award, as well as those in Central Works in Technical Communication (Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber, Eds.), and in Elizabeth Overman Smith’s 2000 article, “Points of reference in technical communication scholarship,” as well as other scholarly publications specifically applicable to your research focus.

The reading list will have approximately 100 works total, comprised of a well-balanced mix of scholarly books and articles. The reading list must address all four themes in a proportion to be negotiated with the committee chair.

After submitting your reading list, you should meet with the members of your Supervisory Committee to discuss your readings. 


The PhD dissertation is a book-length written project based on original research undertaken by you as the candidate. It serves two purposes:

  1. Expand the knowledge of the field.
  2. Demonstrate that you are capable of original and meaningful research.

You should be working toward the selection of a dissertation topic from the moment of matriculation in the program, if not before. By the end of the first year in the program, you should have a good sense of the direction your research will take.

First Year

During your first year, you should take the opportunity to meet with the members of USU’s cadre of professors to get a sense of which of them might be most compatible with your research aspirations. As you are considering your options, you should keep in mind that your research topic needs to be somewhat compatible with at least one of the faculty’s. If not, you may have to adjust your topic. The idea is that the advisor you select will mentor you as you advance your research ideas. If none of the faculty is familiar with or interested in your topic, there is no one to mentor you.

Second and Subsequent Years

During your second year, you should select a dissertation advisor and begin thinking about your research topic (you are strongly encouraged to do this before the end of the third semester).

Often, you will be able to advance your research in the courses you take over the next few years. Your advisor can help you select these courses and help you advance your research in them. Work in these classes can often be adapted to conference papers and journal articles, giving you the opportunity to see what others, in the profession, think about your ideas and giving you the opportunity to integrate their suggestions.

After you complete your coursework, you will do a research internship worth 6 credit hours. Students often use this internship as an opportunity to examine the problem they will address in the dissertation.

The formal dissertation proposal is your opportunity to refine the problem to be researched and design the research methods. It is also the Supervisory Committee's opportunity to review and evaluate your research plans and advise you about the value and feasibility of the proposed project.

The Dissertation Proposal

The dissertation proposal is required to be between 11-12 double-spaced pages in length, not including references, with 1" margins and 12 pt font. In it, you must:

  • Define the scope of the research
  • Convince the Supervisory Committee that your research project will produce knowledge valuable to the field
  • Demonstrate that the research methods are valid and appropriate to the question at issue

A Supervisory Committee's signature to the Application to Candidacy Form, signals that the dissertation proposal has been approved and attests that you are ready to conduct independent dissertation research (though completion of the requirement is not guaranteed).

Because the choice of a topic and research design is so critical to your success, Committees will rigorously review these proposals and may require multiple revisions.

In general, the proposal will consist of the following components (which may be tailored somewhat for each project):

  • Statement of the question at issue (problem): What problem or question have you identified as the focus of your research? Provide a brief overview of the theoretical and methodological frameworks within which you intend to work. You will explicate these in more detail later.
  • Literature review: The literature review accomplishes several things:
    • It helps provide a context in which to locate your project, showing the existence of a scholarly conversation in which you are about to participate.
    • It provides evidence that the subject is important enough to your field to have generated discussion.
    • It establishes your authority to enter the conversation, showing that you are knowledgeable about the discussion and would be a credible participant.
    • It allows you to formulate an argument for the exigency and value of the project you are about to undertake. In addition to showing that your topic has generated scholarly debate, you need to shape your review to show that your topic represents a gap in current knowledge, an area that has been inadequately or incompletely researched, and/or an area that warrants a revisit because new theoretical perspectives or research tools might provide new knowledge.
  • Procedures: This section of your proposal explains how you will go about your research.
    • What methods of gathering data will you use, and why?
    • What methods will you use to analyze the data and why?
    • Contextualize your collection and analysis methods in the theoretical assumptions and approaches that guide your research.

As you construct your research methodology, be aware that any research involving human beings must receive approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). You must have your committee approve your dissertation proposal before submitting to the IRB; however, if you already received IRB approval for a previous project that later you decide to use in your dissertation, you must submit an amendment (rather than creating a new protocol) to that original IRB exemption/approval after your dissertation proposal is approved.

  • Outline: Provides a tentative outline of your dissertation, with chapter headings and a few lines of explanation under each. Add forecasts and transitions to help explain the rationale for your organization. Your readers will want to know why you have divided it this way and why you have chosen this sequence for the sections.
  • Timetable: Presents a schedule that you plan to follow for completing the research and writing the dissertation. Bearing in mind the deadlines published by the School of Graduate Studies and your own plans for graduation, identify a tentative defense date and work backwards from that.
  • Completion: You should plan to complete your proposal as soon after passing the Comprehensive Exam as you are able, but no later than one semester after completion.
    • Work with your major professor to develop your proposal, consulting with him/her about essential literature to read, about focusing your topic effectively, about selecting research and analysis methods, and about a feasible timetable.
    • You should also meet with other members of the Supervisory Committee, especially those who have specialized knowledge in areas important to your work.

The Dissertation

You will meet with your Supervisory Committee as a whole once each Spring semester for a formal review of progress on the dissertation. You will also meet informally with the major professor on a fairly regular basis and with other Committee members as necessary.

You must consult the Utah State University Thesis/Dissertation requirements for style rules and relevant forms.

You and your major professor will decide when the manuscript is ready to submit to the Supervisory Committee for final review prior to the oral defense. The oral defense consists of a 90-minute public discussion of your research. All members of the Supervisory Committee must be present. The Supervisory Committee must unanimously approve the dissertation.

According to University regulations, you have 8 years from matriculation to finish the PhD degree.

Timetable for the Dissertation Proposal and Dissertation

  1. Before the end of your third semester in the program, invite an eligible faculty member to serve as your major professor, and consult with him/her to form the Supervisory Committee.
  2. Meet with the Supervisory Committee (now replacing the Director of Graduate Studies and the Exams Committee as advisors) in the Spring semester of each year after the first to discuss the direction of your research, possible methods and essential literature.
  3. Begin reading for the literature review, refining your research question as you do.
  4. After passing the Comprehensive Exam, write your dissertation proposal.
  5. Submit a request for approval of your research to the Human Subjects Board, if using human subjects.
  6. Schedule the proposal review with your Supervisory Committee.
  7. Submit copies of the proposal to the Supervisory Committee at least two weeks before the scheduled Review.
  8. Meet with the Supervisory Committee to discuss approval of the proposal. The Committee may require extensive revision of the proposal.
  9. When the proposal is approved, submit the Application for Candidacy for Doctoral Degree Form to the School of Graduate Studies. (Research using human subjects must have been approved by the IRB before the School of Graduate Studies will approve the Application for Candidacy. No human subject research may be implemented before approval.)
  10. Begin collecting data for the dissertation.
  11. Write the dissertation.
  12. Submit chapters as they are completed to your major professor. He/she may require revision, and will determine when the chapters are ready for circulation to other Committee members.
  13. With the major professor, determine when the completed, revised manuscript is ready for final review by the Committee.
  14. Schedule the oral defense of the dissertation at least 7 weeks before the anticipated degree-completion date. He/she will submit the completed dissertation to the Committee at least one month before the defense. Each committee member must read and approve the dissertation before signing the Appointment for Examination form. Signed by all Supervisory Committee members, this form affirms that the members believe the dissertation is ready for defense (see the General Catalog). You will circulate the Appointment for Examination Form to the Supervisory Committee and submit it to the School of Graduate Studies a minimum of 10 working days prior to the oral defense (see the General Catalog).
  15. After scheduling the oral defense, receive several forms for completion of the degree process (see the General Catalog).

The Oral Defense

The Supervisory Committee records the results of the defense and any additional requirements on the Record of Examination Completion form and submits it to the Graduate School Office.

You submit the dissertation to the thesis coordinator for final review of format, style and mechanics. You must revise in compliance with the thesis coordinator's requirements before the thesis coordinator will submit the dissertation to the graduate dean for approval.

The Dean of the School of Graduate Studies gives final approval to the dissertation, and has the authority to require further review.

All graduation forms must be completed, fees paid, and forms submitted to the School of Graduate Studies before a degree can be closed out.

Timeline to Graduation

As a student in USU's Technical Communication and Rhetoric PhD program, you will typically be able to complete your doctorate in four years if you follow the schedule below.

First Year

First Fall Semester

You should immediately meet with the Department's Director of Graduate Studies, Jared Colton (, and your supervisory committee to plan coursework for the first academic year.

NOTE: Plan to take 18 credits your first year by either taking 9-credit hours each in the fall and spring, or by taking a lesser combination in fall and spring plus additional credits over the summer to make up the difference.

First Spring Semester

In April of your first year, complete the  annual review progress report, your CV, your biographical statement, and your Program of Study worksheet. Submit these materials to your preliminary supervisory committee chair for the TCR committee to review. This review constitutes your qualifying examination.

Second Year

Second Fall Semester

During the semester, complete an updated copy of your Program of Study worksheet and submit it to your Supervisory Committee Chair for approval. This is preliminary to the next step, which is completing your Program of Study Form with the School of Graduate Studies listing all the courses that will count towards your degree. Your Supervisory Committee should sign the form. Once you have taken ENGL 7000, you should be thinking about your internship, which you should begin your second summer semester.

Second Spring Semester

You must submit a second-year annual review progress report by April 1 to your Supervisory Committee or to the entire Technical Communication and Rhetoric (TCR) committee if required.

Submit a proposed reading list to your Supervisory Committee Chair. Work with your Supervisory Committee to secure written approval of the list before the end of the semester the coursework is completed.

At the end of this semester, you should be prepared to begin your research internship.

NOTE: Following this schedule, students should have completed 36 ENGL 7000-level credits. At this point, their assigned Supervisory Committees will be dissolved and they must form a Dissertation Supervisory Committee made up of three faculty members from the TCR faculty (one serving as the “Major Professor”), a member of the English Department outside the TCR faculty, and a member outside of the English Department.

Second Summer Semester

Research internship (6 credits).

Third Year

Third Fall Semester

Use this semester to prepare for your Comprehensive Examination. Your coursework and reading list will be your foundation for taking the exam, but your research idea for your dissertation should be your guiding principle.

NOTE: Students must complete their Comprehensive Examination by the end of the semester (not including summer) immediately following the semester in which coursework is completed and reading list is approved. Failure to complete the Comprehensive Examination within this timeframe could be grounds for probation.

Fourth Year

Fourth Fall and Spring Semesters

Submit a fourth-year annual review progress report by April 1 to your Supervisory Committee or to the TCR committee if required. Use this time to research and write your dissertation. You should be able to defend it in the spring. If you defend it early enough, or if it is clear it will be approved by your committee, you may walk (go through the graduation ceremony) in May of your fourth year.

NOTE: The date and time for the oral defense of the dissertation must be scheduled with the School of Graduate Studies at least 10 working days before the defense.


Forms for Doctoral Students

Important Policies

Length of Program

The Grad School allots eight years from the time you matriculate (i.e. from the time you are accepted into the program). Coursework that is more than eight years old may not be used for a graduate degree. If permitted by the departmental or interdepartmental degree program policy, a supervisory committee may allow revalidation through testing, following a plan developed by the supervisory committee and approved by the dean of the School of Graduate Studies. The results must be verified in writing to the graduate dean by your major professor or other person(s) responsible for the testing. Work experience cannot be substituted for out-of-date coursework or used for revalidation.

Residency Requirements

PhD students will establish residency in their first year. They must remain in residence at least until achieving doctoral candidacy (ABD) and be engaged as active members of the USU academic community. Please note that students must be Utah residents to maintain their GI-ship.

Class Attendance

Students in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric (TCR) PhD program should be aware that while portions of some PhD classes are online, there is a once-a-week, in-person, face-to-face meeting that is required of PhD students in all TCR courses. A student's physical presence is expected at these meetings. On rare occasions, with the proper documentation from medical professionals, a student may petition an instructor to attend a particular class meeting via Zoom or other video platform because of extenuating medical conditions. Such periods should not typically last longer than the equivalent of two weeks of class time. The student should receive permission from the instructor in writing prior to the class meeting, and the instructor has the right to refuse based on the particular class activities planned for that meeting if those activities are not conducive to remote attendance. This policy is part of our residency requirement for PhD students.