Comparative Literature


All first- and second-year students have two official advisers: 1) the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), who for the 2013-2014 academic year is Professor Karen Thornber (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) and 2) a Field Adviser, who is most often a faculty member in the Department of Comparative Literature.  The DGS assigns all incoming students a field adviser for their first and usually second years.  Students have the option, at the start of the G2 year, of continuing with the same field adviser as during the G1 year, or of choosing another faculty member.  During the G3 year, students generally are advised by the chair of their Orals committee, and during the G4 year and beyond by the chair of their Dissertation committee.

Course Requirements

The number of courses required for the PhD in Comparative Literature is sixteen, of which at least eight must be graduate (200-level) seminars. Students can arrange to produce extra work, typically in the form of a graduate-style research paper, so as to receive 200-level credit for courses that are listed at the 100-level in the Courses of Instruction; such an arrangement should be made early in the term when the course is being taken, if possible within the first two weeks of classes, because the plan must be approved by the course instructor and the DGS. The necessary approval form is available from the Department Administrator, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in Dana Palmer, or may be downloaded from the department’s website.

The remaining eight courses may include 100-level courses, 200-level seminars, 300-level Reading and Research Courses (reading courses generally not requiring a seminar paper), or language courses. Students will write two or three substantial seminar papers each semester during the first two years; two is the minimum (and quite sufficient) expectation, three is the maximum students should undertake to write each semester, so as to have time to do the work thoroughly. With permission of the DGS, up to four language courses may be counted toward the degree.

Students are expected to balance coursework in the following manner: at least four courses in the Department of Comparative Literature (which can include up to two of the 100-level “Literature” courses); three in a first literature; two in a second literature; and two in a third literature.

A course that is cross-listed in the Department of Comparative Literature will be counted either toward the Comparative Literature requirement or toward the national literature from which it is offered (if the readings were done in the original), but not toward both. In such cases, students should let the department administrator know how the credit should be counted.

To satisfy the literature requirements in first, second, and third literatures, reading must be done in the original language. If the DGS determines that work was not read in the original language, departmental credit will be withdrawn.

The first literature must have a historical component, whatever the area of specialization: that is, it must include at least one course in a period different from the period examined in the other two courses in this literature. Other coursework may include relevant courses in literature, in language study, or in other disciplines relevant to student interests, such as philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, linguistics, or art history.

Overall, student coursework must include a significant dimension of comparative historical or cross-cultural study. This dimension can be met by taking a minimum of three courses with a chronological or regional focus different from the primary area of focus. (In the case of a chronological breadth, these three courses could include the historically diverse third course in the primary literature.) It is important that these three courses be distinctly different from the main period and/or culture in the program. Thus someone concentrating on European modernism would not be able to fulfill this requirement with three courses in the European nineteenth century; either a greater historical depth or else a significant cultural range (for example, modernism in East Asia) would be expected. Many students will declare a chronological focus on a particular period. However, students may request a focus that covers a genre or field of study if it is followed throughout a very broad historical or cultural range, e.g., tragedy or lyric poetry in languages ancient and modern, or comparative cross-cultural poetics. In addition, students may identify a special interest in a particular literary form (such as drama, lyric, narrative, and the like) or a topic of substantial scope in literary theory (poetics, literature in its social context, the relation between literature and one of the other arts, and so forth). Whatever choice a student makes, the decision must be communicated to the DGS by April 1 during the first year of study. If a student can identify his/her focus earlier, he/she is welcome to do so.

It is the student’s responsibility to ensure that the department is informed of any change of focus, since meeting certain departmental requirements is based on this focus.


Candidates for the PhD are required, in a given year, to receive more A’s than B’s and no grade lower than B-. A course graded below B- will not count toward the degree; more than one course below B- would be a serious indication of unsatisfactory progress in the program.

Incompletes:  Students should avoid taking “Incompletes.” Incompletes frequently become administrative nightmares that mar the transcript and damage students’ chances in applying for fellowships. Even worse, Incompletes taken in one term can have a snowball effect that causes students to fall further behind in their coursework in the following term.

Students in Comparative Literature may not take more than one Incomplete per semester. Under no circumstances are they permitted to take an Incomplete in the Proseminar (Comp Lit 299ar) or in Professing Literature (Comp Lit 243 hf).  To remain in good standing, students may take no more than two Incompletes per year. By GSAS rules, Incompletes must be changed to a letter grade before the end of the following term (unless the professor sets an earlier deadline) or the student must submit a petition for an extension of the Incomplete. According to departmental policy, two unfinished Incompletes may result in the candidate being asked to withdraw from the program or to take a leave of absence. Furthermore, two Incompletes will render a student ineligible for summer stipends, which are dependent upon satisfactory progress. As in all cases, students having academic difficulties should see the DGS at their earliest opportunity.

Language Requirements

By the time students take the Oral examination (spring of the G3 year), they must know at least four languages related to their courses of study and long-term interests. One language may be studied only for instrumental reasons; at least one must stand in a useful “cross-cultural” or “diachronic” relationship to the others.

In September of the G1 year, after consulting with the DGS and field advisor, students should draw up a list of four or more proposed languages; three of these will normally constitute the literatures they declare as their “first,” “second,” and “third” literatures in which they will be doing coursework. Students should submit this list to the DGS no later than October 1st of the first year. The list of proposed languages may be revised and resubmitted at a later date so long as it meets department guidelines, but it is important at the outset to develop a solid initial plan for the languages and literatures on which the student will be focusing.

Language requirements must be finished by the end of the third year; candidates who want to take an A.M. after the second year must complete language requirements in three languages before the degree can be awarded.

Instrumental language:
One of a student’s four languages may be an “instrumental” means for reading criticism, or an access to philological and/or historical issues, or a first step toward eventually studying the literature. Students may exercise this option by taking an upper-level language course (consult the DGS for approval, as the necessary level of coursework varies by language), or by passing a reading exam administered by the department. The instrumental language is an option that may appeal to candidates who seek in three languages a command that includes not just reading but extends to include speaking, listening, and writing, and in one language reading knowledge only; other candidates may choose to develop full command of all four languages.

Premodern or cross-cultural language:
One of a student’s four languages must be either premodern (diachronic) or cross-cultural. The term “premodern” implies that this language stands in a historically foundational or, in certain cases, diachronic relationship to one of the other languages. Foundational languages would include classical Latin and Greek, biblical Hebrew, and classical Arabic, Chinese, Armenian, and Sanskrit. Normally this language is not simply the “Old” form of a modern language which is studied in Old, Middle or Medieval, and Modern forms. In the event of uncertainty, candidates and/or their advisors should consult the DGS.

The term “cross-cultural” implies that this language is from another linguistic-cultural group than the others. Usually a candidate working primarily on European languages and literatures, and choosing not to study a premodern language, would need to study a language such as Chinese or Arabic to meet this requirement. Normally, English will not count as a cross-cultural language. The cross-cultural requirement may be waived for students who are doing a combined AB/AM degree. However, if they are subsequently admitted to the PhD program, they must then satisfy the requirement.

Language Exams:
Competence in languages can be demonstrated by taking 100- or 200-level courses in the literatures of the languages (not language-learning courses, but ordinarily courses in the departments in which those languages are offered: arranging to do some of the required readings in the original language in a course taught in translation is not usually sufficient) or by taking a departmental translation examination. Under most circumstances PhD candidates will demonstrate competence in three of their four literatures by meeting the course requirements for the first, second, and third literatures. For instance, a student who wishes to concentrate on literatures in English, French, and Spanish would take three courses in one of these and two in each of the others. Such a student might need to take an exam to meet the requirement for a language that stands in a “cross-cultural” or “diachronic” relationship to the candidate’s literatures.

Students who want to meet the language requirement through an exam are encouraged to take it as early as they feel ready, since not passing the exam is no dishonor at all and since the exam can be taken again when it is next offered. Sometimes examiners in a given language have established a set group of texts from which passages for translation will normally be drawn. For example, the classical Latin exam has tended to be a passage of 20 to 25 hexameter lines from the poetry of Virgil. The goal of the exams is to demonstrate an ability to read the language in question effectively. For that reason, students taking the exams are allowed to use dictionaries. Students are allowed one hour for the examination.

Students who wish to take a language exam should approach the departmental administrator. Often it will be possible to see copies of old exams, to get an idea of their length, difficulty, and variety. The administrator is responsible for scheduling the exam and (in consultation with the DGS) for approaching faculty members in the department who are most suited to set and grade the exam.

Candidates whose program of study requires more than the language and related study outlined in previous sections of the regulations, especially those involving coursework, may design in advance appropriate arrangements in consultation with the DGS.

Second-Year Paper

In May of the G2 year each student submits a Second-Year Paper of 25–30 pages on a comparative topic. This can be an expanded version of a seminar paper being written that semester or one from a previous semester, or it can be developed on the basis of an individual reading course guided by a faculty member. Writing a Second-Year Paper will demonstrate the ability to do a serious comparative project as the student completes coursework. Students will receive active guidance on making the transition from seminar papers to the writing of articles. The faculty member advising the Second-Year Paper (typically the instructor of the relevant seminar) and a secondary reader (assigned by the department) will provide a pass/fail grade and written comments.

Master of Arts (AM)

Application for admission must be to the PhD program, unless one is an undergraduate of Harvard College with advanced standing and applies for a combined AB/AM. Students already in the program may receive an AM degree in passing.

To obtain this degree the candidate must complete eight half-courses. One of these half-courses must be the Proseminar, another one must be in Comparative Literature, and the remaining six must include three in the first literature and two in the second literature. No more than one of the eight half-courses may be a reading course.

Candidates are required to have at least as many 200-level as 100-level courses, and only in rare exceptions will courses below the 100-level be allowed to count toward the degree. The candidate must demonstrate proficiency in three languages, one of which may be English. Except for AB/AM candidates, one of the languages must be premodern or cross-cultural, as described in the requirements for the PhD.

The Third Year and Beyond

The third and fourth year requirements in the PhD. program in Comparative Literature will comprise two parts, a PhD Orals Examination and a Prospectus Conference.
Students are required to begin formulating orals fields and lining up examiners during the spring semester of their second year. They should have all three lists drawn and approved by the end of May.

The PhD Orals Examination: this exam must be taken in the spring of the G-3 year. It has a tripartite structure, consisting of a one-hour major field and two half-hour minor fields, each with one examiner:  The major field involves three (or more) languages, with a reading list of some forty books (or shorter works adding up to a comparable amount of reading), selected in consultation with the examiner to give the student’s personal take on the likely field of specialization. The major field should provide a broad context for the eventual dissertation topic, while also enabling students to demonstrate a solid knowledge of the primary field, of the sort they might be asked to draw on in creating a survey lecture course.

The two minor fields will each involve a reading list of about twenty books or their equivalent. One minor field could be geared directly to the likely dissertation topic, when known; one could have a predominantly theoretical or interdisciplinary cast. If the major field concerns literature of a single period, one of the minor fields should be based in another period.

The orals fields and lists will be reviewed and approved by the DGS once the three examiners have approved their lists. During the third year, students are expected to meet periodically with their three examiners, on whatever schedule fits their preparation, but making sure to have at least one meeting every two or three weeks with one or another examiner.

Preparation for the PhD Orals Examination is designed to help build interaction with faculty members (most likely with some direct overlap with the subsequent dissertation committee), and the examination itself will create an occasion that approximates aspects of a job interview.

Prospectus Conference: Following the successful completion of the PhD orals examination, students will develop a dissertation prospectus of ten to twelve pages (plus bibliography). The prospectus should be completed no later than November 15 of the fourth year, at which point the department office will schedule the prospectus conference, to be held if possible by the end of the fall semester. The conference is a meeting between the student and his/her dissertation committee, consisting of a principal dissertation advisor (PDA) and two other committee members (readers). At least one of the three must be a member of the Comparative Literature faculty (more likely, two or even all three will be members). The principal dissertation advisor can be the same as the student’s previous academic advisor, but will often not be the same. If a student’s PDA is a member of the department, then he or she also becomes the departmental academic advisor; if a student’s PDA is not a member of the department, then the student should choose a different departmental academic advisor, most likely another member of the dissertation committee.

The prospectus conference will be a discussion of a fairly broad range of reading that the student has undertaken in preparation for work on the dissertation. The conference will include a detailed discussion of the dissertation prospectus itself, with the aim of ensuring that the student is well prepared to move forward with the project and has developed both a viable conceptual structure and an appropriate outline of the chapters that will comprise the dissertation. Often, the three examiners for the PhD Orals Examination will also serve as the three faculty participants in the Prospectus Conference, but there can also be changes in personnel from one stage to the next. Ordinarily, but not necessarily, the three faculty participants in the Prospectus Conference will be three readers of the dissertation.

Acceptance of the Prospectus: After the prospectus conference, the prospectus, revised if necessary, will be circulated to the full faculty of the department. At a department meeting convened by the chair it will be discussed and voted on, ideally in December of the fourth year if not sooner. Where appropriate, a student’s first reader will communicate any further suggestions for changing the prospectus and the bibliography. If the department votes for further changes to the prospectus (“passed with minor changes”), there is normally no need for the members of the Committee to reconfirm their approval.

Working on the Dissertation

As the culmination of one’s graduate studies, the period of work on the dissertation can be the best of times or the worst of times, if not both. A student should have the satisfaction of drawing on much that he/she has been learning in the past years, and of finding or refining his or her scholarly voice and entering fully into the debates in the field; at the same time, the student faces the challenges of managing a very different kind of schedule and scale of work than anything he or she has likely experienced before. If the prospectus phase was largely about the dissertation’s spatial form (how many chapters, how long, what narrative arc), the writing phase becomes equally about time. How can one best structure one’s days, weeks, and semesters to keep oneself working productively at a pace suited to the length of the project, neither burning out nor letting the project extend into an indefinite horizon? Individual projects and schedules vary greatly, but a few basic guidelines can help make this the best of times, yielding an excellent written product within the time – and the funding – available.

  1. Break it down. The best way to write a dissertation (and, generally, a book as well) is one chapter at a time, often though not necessarily in the order they’ll appear in the finished dissertation. Usually the introduction is best written at the end, together with the conclusion.
  2. Set a Steady Pace. For a typical four- or five-chapter dissertation, a good rate of work is roughly one chapter per semester or summer. This may seem daunting, but in fact students have been writing 50 or 60 pages per semester all through graduate school, which is just the rate they should aim for in the dissertation. True, a student is supposed to accomplish more in the dissertation than in a set of seminar papers, but he/she knows more than before, and the extended work on the prospectus has yielded a solid topic, which now can be developed more fully.
  3. Make a plan. Upon approval of the prospectus, students should work out an overall plan for the coming two or so years of dissertation work, and a second, week-by-week plan for the upcoming semester. They should show these plans to their sponsors for input, then proceed accordingly, modifying the plan from time to time as needed. For a hypothetical five-chapter dissertation begun in the middle of the fourth year, the plan might run as follows:
    G4 spring Chapter 1
    Summer Research abroad
    G5 fall Chapter 2
    G5 spring Chapter 3
    Summer Chapter 4
    G6 fall Chapter 5, plus first venture into the job market
    G6 spring Introduction, Conclusion, and defense
    G7 year Revisions toward publication, plus intensified job search,
    if no job emerged the previous year

    It is important that a student try to have the body of the dissertation drafted by the fall of the G6 year, so that he/she can make a serious showing on the job market that year.
    Things can come up that may extend this schedule, such as adding in a year on fellowship abroad, but some such plan is highly advisable as a starting-point and overall goal. Along with this overall plan, at the start of each semester the student should work up a weekly plan for the semester, taking into account his/her teaching schedule or other non-dissertation commitments, and building in substantial blocks of time most days for dissertation work. So far as possible, try to block out in advance the most productive time of day for the dissertation, with at least three hours at a time; anything up to eight hours is great, of course, when feasible. A student may be able to do more on some days of the week than others, but a steady average of five or so hours a day (25-30 hours a week) will likely be about right to get the job done and still give him/her time for other commitments. The semester schedule can and should be revised as needed, but a student is much more likely to make steady progress if he/she has a set plan from which to work.

  4. See the committee. A student’s PDA and two readers are there for them, but it is the student’s responsibility to take the initiative to set up meetings. Much as with orals preparation, a student should set him/herself a schedule to ensure that he/she sees one or more of his/her advisors every few weeks, first to discuss tentative plans, then to discuss a chapter outline, perhaps again for a general midway conversation on a chapter, then of course to hand in the draft prior to the chapter meeting that the student should aim to have each semester.
  5. Share work. The Comparative Literature students' colloquium is an ideal forum in which a student may share one or more of his/her chapters, and to attend regularly to see classmates developing and discussing their work. Beyond campus, it’s good for students to present their work at a couple of conferences a year (more than that adds little and can slow progress). The department has funding to assist in conference travel, as do several Area Centers on campus and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Also it’s good to send out a couple of articles for publication, either derived from dissertation chapters or potentially something not dissertation-related, so as to show the diversity of their work when they go on the job market.

The PhD in Comparative Literature with a Special Program in the Study of Oral Tradition and Literature

The requirements for this special program are essentially the same as those listed above, except that at least one of the literatures must constitute (or at least include) a substantial corpus that is independent of written transmission and that derives from collections of performance recorded under strictly supervised conditions of fieldwork. A major resource for such purposes is the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard. Students in this program are overseen by the department’s Committee on the Study of Oral Tradition and Literature.

Please see the description of a secondary field in Comparative Literature at the end of Chapter VI (see below).

Secondary Fields

The Department of Comparative Literature offers Comparative Literature as a secondary field in GSAS to enrich the education of Ph.D. students in other departments who seek to do research and teach across the institutional boundaries of national languages and literatures. As faculty members, students specializing in a national literature may be called on to teach comparative courses or courses in general or world literature. The secondary field in Comparative Literature prepares them to do so by introducing them to basic issues in the field.

Although the department recognizes that literatures in a single language constitute a coherent tradition, Comparative Literature seeks to develop an awareness of how literary works move across language borders, both in the original language and in translation.  The department calls attention to theoretical issues shared not only across the boundaries of languages but also across very different traditions.


An ability to work in literatures in at least three languages. Normally this will be demonstrated by coursework in which at least some of the primary readings are in the language. In certain circumstances (for example, if one of the languages is the student’s native language) the DGS may waive the requirement that competence in a language be demonstrated by coursework. If English is used as one of the languages, the other two languages should show some breadth; that is, they may not be closely allied, either linguistically or by academic convention (e.g., Spanish and Portuguese, Urdu and Hindi, classical and modern Chinese, or Greek and Latin). The judgment regarding what can legitimately count for the set of three languages will be at the discretion of the DGS.


  1. Four courses, one of which must be the Comparative Literature proseminar and two of which must be other Comparative Literature seminars at the 200 level. The remaining course requirements will be met by either 200-level seminars in Comparative Literature or 100-level Literature courses, which normally count for graduate credit in Comparative Literature.
  2. Successful completion of a Second-Year Paper of 25-30 pages on a comparative topic, as required for students in Comparative Literature.  Students doing a secondary field in Comparative Literature do not need to submit the Second-Year Paper by the end of their G2 year, but they are encouraged to submit this paper as soon thereafter as possible.

Contact the Director of Graduate Studies, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with any further questions.

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in comparative literature may be found on our website.

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