Requirements -Modern Languages - Carnegie Mellon University

Second Language Acquisition Ph.D. Program Requirements

Program of Study

The Ph.D. in SLA consists of at least four semesters of course work, a comprehensive examination and a Ph. D. dissertation. Students are expected to enroll full time (36 units) during the semesters that they are working toward the degree. There is a university residency requirement of two years. Students will have considerable flexibility in designing their course of study; however, they will be required to complete the following courses:

  • Second Language Acquisition: Theories and Research
  • Research Methods in SLA
  • Language Theories
  • Statistics
  • Introduction to Qualitative Research

To have an in-depth sequence in research methods, all students are also required to take at least two courses in either quantitative or qualitative methods (in addition to the introductory ones).

In order to benefit from the experience and strengths of the core faculty, students are expected to take courses with each faculty member in the program during their stay at Carnegie Mellon. Students are required to take at least four courses in SLA topics or guided research offered by the core faculty in the program. All additional course work will focus on the students' chosen area of study.

All students will participate in the Graduate Research Seminar every semester. This seminar provides an opportunity for students and faculty to discuss their research in progress with occasional presentations by outside guest speakers.

Description of Major Benchmarks

The following benchmarks are intended to guide students through the program and provide opportunities to engage in activities common to the profession. These benchmarks also serve as an opportunity to assess students' general performance in the program and to provide them with feedback.

Review of Literature Paper

The goal of this paper is to encourage students to identify their interest area in SLA and probe it more deeply. For this paper students are expected to engage in:

  1. Identifying a topic of interest
  2. Problem formulation
  3. Literature search
  4. Study quality/relevance assessment
  5. Interpretation and synthesis
  6. Summary and conclusion
  7. Identifying directions for future research


This project is to be completed by the end of the first year. Ideally, the topic selected in the first year will evolve into the core theme of the dissertation. Through engaging in this project, students receive training and opportunities for conceptual explorations through problem formulation and research synthesis/expansion. This paper will be reviewed by all SLA core faculty. Only those students whose paper is judged to be of superior quality will be advanced to the next phase of the program.

Research Report

The second project will be to prepare a research report based on research done during the first two years of residency in the program. The paper needs to conceptualize a problem, situate the problem in discussions in the field, and present a clear methodological design with preliminary results and future steps. It will be a data-driven paper of publishable quality (25-30 pages in length).

Comprehensive Exam

This exam allows students to explore a proposed dissertation topic from an integrative perspective. In consultation with their advisor, students select a potential dissertation topic. They prepare a reading list covering three areas: critical literature review, methodology, and educational implications/applications. An examination committee is selected and responsibilities for questions are distributed. The student completes the written examination containing questions covering the three areas. Students can refer to any sources they wish in preparing the answers. Responses need to be completed 48 hours after the beginning of the examinations. Successful completion of the exam leads to the dissertation proposal.

Dissertation Proposal

After the comprehensive examination is approved, students begin work on their dissertation proposal. They are expected to complete their dissertation proposal by the end of the semester following the comprehensive examination. Students select a dissertation committee comprised of no less than three members: a committee chair from the department and two additional members (one may be from outside the department or university). Students write the proposal, which includes an introduction, a critical review of the literature and research design (methodology). The committee reviews the proposal and suggests changes or improvements, and later convenes to approve the proposal. After the proposal is approved, the student becomes ABD (All But Dissertation) and begins the dissertation research.

Dissertation Defense

After the completed dissertation is submitted to the committee, the student has an oral defense open to the public. Approval of this defense and incorporation of changes into the dissertation successfully concludes the doctoral program.