Program Description

Higher Degrees in English

The Graduate Program in English leads to the degrees of Master of Arts (AM) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The AM is an integral part of the doctoral program, and therefore only students who intend to pursue the PhD are eligible for admission to the Graduate Program in English.

The Program

The program takes from four to seven years to complete, with the majority finishing in five or six years. The first two years are devoted to coursework and to preparation for the PhD Qualifying Exam (the “General” exam) at the beginning of the second year. The second and third years are devoted to preparing for the Dissertation Qualifying Exam (the “Field” exam) and writing the Dissertation Prospectus. The fourth, fifth and, where necessary, sixth years are spent completing the doctoral dissertation. From the third year until the final year (when they are generally supported by Dissertation Completion Fellowships), students also devote time to teaching and to developing teaching skills. Students with prior graduate training or those with a demonstrated ability may complete their dissertations in the fourth or fifth years. Students are strongly discouraged from taking more than seven years to complete the program except under the most exceptional circumstances.

The program aims to provide the PhD candidate with a broad knowledge of the field of English, including critical and cultural theory. Additional important skills include facility with the tools of scholarship—ancient and modern foreign languages, bibliographic procedures, and textual and editorial methods. The program also emphasizes the ability to write well, to do solid and innovative scholarly and critical work in a specialized field or fields, to teach effectively, and to make articulate presentations at conferences, seminars, and symposia.


The minimum residence requirement is two years of enrollment in full-time study, with a total of at least fourteen courses completed with honor grades (no grade lower than B-).

The minimum standard for satisfactory work in the Graduate School is a B average in each academic year.


  • A minimum of 14 courses must be completed no later than the end of the second year.
  • At least ten courses must be at the 200- (graduate) level, and at least six of these ten must be taken within the department. Graduate students in the English department will have priority for admission into 200-level courses.
  • The remaining courses may be either at the 100- or the 200-level.
  • Students typically devote part of their course work in the first year to preparing for the “General” exam, focusing increasingly on their field in the second year.

Independent Study and Creative Writing

  • Students may petition to take one of the 100-level courses as independent study (English 399) with a professor, but not before the second term of residence.
  • Other independent study courses will be permitted only in exceptional circumstances and with the consent of the professor and director of graduate studies (DGS).
  • Only one creative writing course, which counts as a 100-level course, may count toward the PhD degree course requirements.

Credit For Work Done Elsewhere (Advanced Standing)

Once the student has completed at least three 200-level courses with a grade of A or A-, a maximum of four graduate-level courses may be transferred from other graduate programs, at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies.

Transferred courses will not count toward the minimum of ten required 200-level courses, but will be counted as 100-level courses.


No more than one Incomplete may be carried forward at any one time by a graduate student in the English Department. It must be made up no later than six weeks after the start of the next term.

In applying for an Incomplete, students must have signed permission from the instructor and the DGS, or the course in question may not count toward the program requirements. If students do not complete work by the deadline, the course will not count toward the program requirements, unless there are documented extenuating circumstances.

Language Requirements

A reading knowledge of two languages is required. Normally, Latin, Ancient Greek, Old English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian are the accepted languages. Other languages may be acceptable if the DGS deems them relevant and appropriate to a student’s program of study. Students may fulfill the language requirements:

(1) by passing a two-hour translation exam with a dictionary;
(2) by taking a one-term literature course in the chosen language;
(3) or by taking two terms of Old English*, elementary Latin or Ancient Greek.

Any course taken to fulfill the language requirement must be passed with a grade of B- or better. Literature-level language courses count for course credit; elementary language courses do not. *Please note that only the spring semester of Old English will count towards the graduate course requirement (as a 100 level course) when taken to fulfill a language requirement.

Examples of past language exams can be found here.

The (Non-Terminal) Master of Arts Degree

In order to apply for the AM degree, students must complete, with a grade of B or better, no fewer than a total of seven courses, including a minimum of four English courses, at least three of which must be at the graduate (200-) level, and one additional course that must be taken at the graduate level, but may be taken in another department. Students must also fulfill at least one of their departmental language requirements.

General Exam

At the beginning of the second year, students will take a 75-minute oral exam, based on a list of authors and/or titles which the Department will make available for each entering class in the summer prior to its arrival. The examiners will be three regular members of the department (assistant, associate, or full professors), whose names will not be disclosed in advance.

Candidates whose performance on the exam is judged inadequate will be marked as “not yet passed” and must retake the exam at a time to be determined. If candidates do not pass on the second attempt, they will not be able to continue in the program.

Note: Students must fulfill at least one language requirement by the end of the first year in order to be eligible to take the General Exam.

Field Oral Exam

The purpose of the Field Oral is twofold: to examine students’ preparation in primary teaching and scholarly fields they mean to claim, and to explore an emerging dissertation topic.

The two-hour examination is typically taken before the end of the Fall Reading Period of the third year of graduate study, although it is possible to take it as late as the end of February, should the need arise. The exam is conducted by a three-person examination committee, chosen by the individual student, normally from among the tenured and ladder faculty of the English department, (the chair by June 1 of the second year, and the remaining examiners by no later than September 1 of the third year).

One faculty member acts as chair of the committee and assists students in selecting its other members. This committee, or some part of it, will likely continue to serve as individual students’ dissertation advisors.

During the exam, students are asked to demonstrate an adequate knowledge of both of the major primary works and selected scholarly works in their chosen fields, and to give a first account of a dissertation project.

Those two purposes–representing the chosen field and giving a first account of a dissertation project–are represented by two separate lists, each consisting of primary and scholarly works, drawn up by the student in consultation with the examination committee.

Each committee meets with its advisee at least four weeks before the exam (i.e., before the Thanksgiving break) to finalize fields lists and discuss the exam format.

This exam is graded Pass/Fail.

Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus, signed and approved by three advisors (or two co-advisors, with a third committee member to be added at a later date), is due in the Graduate Office six “business weeks” after passing the Field Oral Examination. The “business weeks” do not include the Winter Recess, so a student passing the exam four weeks before Winter Recess begins, for example, would have another two weeks after the start of classes in the Spring Term to complete the prospectus.

The prospectus is neither a draft chapter nor a detailed road-map of the next two years work but a sketch, no longer than seven to ten pages, of the topic upon which the student plans to write. It gives a preliminary account of the argument, structure, and scope of the intended treatment of the topic. The overview will be followed by a bibliography.

The prospectus is written in consultation with the dissertation advisors, who will meet students at least once in the spring of the third year to discuss the prospectus and to draw up a timetable for the writing of the dissertation.

In planning a timetable, students need to bear in mind (1) that two draft chapters of the dissertation must be completed by the middle of their fifth year, if they are to be eligible to apply for completion fellowships in their sixth year, and (2) that students generally enter the job market in the fall of their sixth year, with at least two final chapters and a third draft chapter completed. They should also remember that term-time fellowships and traveling fellowships may be available to them in the fifth year, but that these require applications which are due as early as December or January of the fourth year. Note: The timetable described above can be accelerated if a student so wishes and is in the position to do so.

Article Submission and Professional Writing Workshop

Students are required to submit an article to a scholarly journal by the end of their 5th year (acceptance is not required). Failure to do so would result in the loss of good standing. This is encouraged for all students, but will apply as a requirement beginning with the incoming class of 2015-16. In conjunction with this new requirement, the department has established a professional writing workshop open to English department students only. Attendance will not be required but expected of students in residence. Students will be expected to take the course at some time before the beginning of the 6th year, and ordinarily in the spring of their 5th year. The course will be graded Sat/Unsat.

Dissertation Advising

Students should assemble a group of faculty members to supervise the dissertation. Several supervisory arrangements are possible: students may work with a committee of three faculty members who share nearly equal responsibility for advising, or with a committee consisting of a principal faculty advisor and a second and third reader. In the first scenario, one of the three faculty members will be asked to serve as a nominal chair of the committee; in the second scenario, the principal advisor serves as chair. If the scope of the project requires it, students should consult the DGS about including a faculty advisor from a department other than English or from another university.

The advising mode chosen will be indicated to the department when the prospectus is submitted. Regardless of the structure of advising, three faculty readers are required to certify the completed dissertation. If it is deemed useful, chapter meetings between the student and the entire committee may be arranged in consultation with the chair.

The Dissertation

After the dissertation prospectus has been approved, candidates work with their dissertation directors or their dissertation committee. All of the designated advisors must approve the final work.

The doctoral dissertation is expected to be an original and substantial work of scholarship or criticism, excellent in form and content. The department accepts dissertations on a great variety of topics involving a broad range of approaches to literature. It sets no specific page limits, preferring to give students and directors as much freedom as possible.

Dissertation Defense

The Dissertation Defense will be a necessary part of receiving the PhD, though it will not be a pass/fail examination. The defense is required for all students who entered the program in 2007 or after.

The form of the defense is as follows:

  • Each student’s defense will be a separate event
  • In addition to the student and the advisors, the participants typically include any interested faculty and any interested graduate students
  • The Graduate Office will announce the upcoming defense to all members of the department, unless otherwise specified by the student
  • The event will start with a 15–20 minute presentation by the student and last at most 90 minutes
  • If a student has left Cambridge and cannot return easily for this purpose, the Graduate Office will arrange for video conferencing

Arrangements will be overseen by the Graduate Office but conducted by the student (as with the Fields examination); students will be required to send an email to the Director of Graduate Studies and to the Graduate Program Administrator, with a copy to their advisors, indicating the day, time, and location of the defense

The meeting for a May degree must take place any time after advisors have signed off on the dissertation and at least a week before Commencement. In practice, however, the student will need to defend after advisors have signed off and before advisors disperse. That period will normally be between 1–14 May, and most probably in the early days of May. It is up to the student to coordinate the arrangements.


Students begin teaching in their third year. Ordinarily they teach discussion sections in courses and in the department’s program of tutorials for undergraduate honors majors.

Preparation for a teaching career is a required part of students’ training, and Teaching Fellows benefit from the supervision and guidance of department members.

Teaching fellows are required to take English 350, the Teaching Colloquium, in their first year of teaching. In addition, they are encouraged to avail themselves of the facilities at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

Doctoral Conferences (“Colloquia”)

The Department of English’s Doctoral Conferences (commonly referred to as “Colloquia”) bring together students and faculty from Harvard and other institutions to discuss current research in literature. Colloquia meet regularly throughout the academic year, and all Harvard graduate students and faculty should feel free to attend any of them, regardless of primary field(s) of interest.

Placement Seminar

As students near the end of their dissertation writing, they may take a seminar preparing them to seek academic and other employment. Students learn about the job application process, develop cover letters and CVs, and practice presenting their work in interviews and job talks, all in a rigorous and supportive environment. Students should leave the seminar with strong materials for the job market, confident identities as the expert scholars and teachers they have become, and clear articulations of how they will contribute to literary studies in the years ahead. The seminar supplements and formalizes the extensive informal placement advising offered in the department.

Graduate Student Progress Timeline

This document provides a year-by-year breakdown of requirements for satisfactory progress in our program.