Degree Programs

Comparative Literature

Harvard University has offered courses in comparative literature since 1894. The Department of Comparative Literature was established by vote of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on April 10, 1906; it was reorganized in 2007 in a merger with the formerly separate undergraduate Literature Concentration. The Department’s students and faculty members pursue studies in the history, theory, and criticism of literature extending beyond the limits set by national and linguistic boundaries. Our PhD program is designed to provide for the needs of students who wish to develop a unified program of study that involves literature in three or more languages. Students take a combination of Comparative Literature courses and courses in the departments of their elected literary fields. Courses in other disciplines may be included when appropriate in individual programs. Most of the department’s faculty members also participate in one of the other departments of language and literature; members of those departments are regularly engaged in the work of this department and are generally available upon request for consultation.

All graduate students in the department are required to take the Proseminar (Comp. Lit. 299ar) during their first year of residence; candidates for the doctorate are encouraged to take at least one further course in theory and method, critical, historical, or linguistic. During the first two years of graduate study, the prospective candidate for the doctorate in Comparative Literature is expected to fulfill the residence requirements by taking courses offered in this and other departments of the University (thus also discharging the requirements for the master’s degree), and to submit the Second-Year Paper (due by the end of the G-2 year) and develop reading lists and prepare for the PhD Orals Examination (taken in the Spring of the G-3 year). After passing these examinations, candidates may continue to engage in seminars and attend courses, but their primary task thereafter will be the completion of a dissertation.

The Master of Arts (AM) Degree

Application for admission must be to the Ph.D. program, except for students who are undergraduates in Harvard College with advanced standing and apply for a combined B.A./A.M.  Students already in the program may receive an A.M. degree in passing. 

To obtain this degree the candidate must complete 8 semester courses. One of these courses must be the Proseminar, another must be in Comparative Literature (a 200-level seminar), and the remaining 6 courses must include 3 in the first literature and 2 in the second literature. No more than one of the 8 semester courses may be a reading course. Students 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 3 languages, one of which may be English. Except for B.A./A.M. candidates, one of the languages must be premodern or cross-cultural, as described in the requirements for the Ph.D.

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The number of courses required for the PhD in Comparative Literature is sixteen, of which at least eight should be graduate (200-level) seminars. Candidates may 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. The remaining 8 courses may include 100-level courses, 300 level “Reading and Research Courses”, or language courses. With permission of the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), up to four language courses may be counted toward the degree. Students wishing to receive 200-level course credit for a 100-level course should make the necessary arrangements early in the term when the course is being taken; they must receive the approval of both the course instructor and the DGS.  The necessary approval form is available from the departmental office or may be downloaded from the department’s website.

Each candidate is normally expected to balance coursework in the following manner: at least 4 courses in the Department of Comparative Literature; 3 in a first literature; 2 in a second literature; and 2 in a third literature. The first literature must have a historical component, whatever the student’s area of specialization, that is, it must include at least one course in a period different from the others. The remaining coursework may include relevant courses in a number of areas, including: other literatures, language study, philosophy, anthropology, religion, linguistics, art, and economics.

Each degree candidate is expected to fulfill the 16-course requirement by including 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 candidate’s primary area of focus. It is important that these three courses be distinctly different from the main period and/or culture in the candidate’s program. Thus a candidate 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 candidates will declare a chronological focus on a particular period. However, candidates 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, all candidates are welcome to 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 the candidate makes, the decision must be communicated to the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) by April 1 during the first year of study. If candidates can identify their focus at the outset of their programs, they may do so.


Candidates should have knowledge of at least four languages variously related to their course of study and long-term interests. One language may be studied for instrumental reasons and at least one must be studied because it stands in a useful “cross-cultural” or “diachronic” relationship to others:

Instrumental Language: One of the 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. Candidates may exercise this option by taking an upper-level language course or by passing a language exam to demonstrate reading knowledge; this exam is administered by the Department. The instrumental language is an option that may appeal to candidates who seek in three languages a command that may extend 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 the 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, 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.


Candidates whose program of study requires more than the languages and related study outlined in previous sections of the department’s regulations should consult the DGS to make the appropriate arrangements.


PhD candidates are required, in any given year, to receive more As than Bs and no grade lower than B-. Candidates are not permitted to take an Incomplete in the Proseminar nor may they take more than one Incomplete a term. Any Incomplete must be completed before the end of the term following that in which the course was taken, unless the student is given an earlier deadline by the instructor.

Second-Year Paper

In the Spring of the G-2 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 of a seminar paper 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 your ability to do a serious comparative project as you complete coursework. You will receive active guidance on making the transition from seminar papers to the writing of articles. Your faculty advisor (typically the instructor of the relevant seminar) and a secondary reader will provide a pass/fail grade and written comments.

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 must begin formulating orals fields and lining up examiners during the Spring semester of their second year. They should have all three lists drawn up and approved by the end of May of that year.

The Ph.D. 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 40 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 20 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 Ph.D. Orals Examination is designed to help build interaction with faculty (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, the candidate develops a dissertation prospectus of 10–12pages (plus bibliography). The prospectus should be completed no later than November 1 of the G-4 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 three faculty members. The conference will be a discussion of a fairly broad range of reading undertaken by the student 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. Typically, the three examiners for the PhD Orals Examination will also serve as the three faculty participants in the Prospectus Conference—but this is a recommendation rather than a requirement. Ordinarily, the three faculty participants in the Prospectus Conference will be three readers of the dissertation, but students are welcome to add readers to their committee.

Acceptance of Dissertation Prospectus

After the prospectus conference, the prospectus, revised if necessary, will be circulated to all department members. At a department meeting convened by the chair it will be discussed and voted on. Where appropriate, the first reader will communicate any further suggestions for changing the prospectus and the bibliography directly to the candidate.

Submission of the Dissertation

It is expected that students will regularly submit chapters to their dissertation committee. A Chapter Meeting will be held upon completion of a full draft of each chapter of a dissertation.  This meeting, which brings together the three committee members in conversation with the student, will be scheduled by the department at the time a draft is circulated, and will be held if possible about two to three weeks after the submission of a chapter. These meetings should supplement rather than replace written feedback, which can be sent in advance of the meeting or handed over at that time. When substantial revisions are requested, committee members should provide timely written comments, though a second meeting on the chapter usually is not needed.

A full version of the dissertation must be submitted to every member of the dissertation committee at least 6 weeks prior to the GSAS Registrar’s deadline for submitting dissertations for a particular degree period. This deadline will allow committee members to make final suggestions and give their approval before the manuscript is printed in its final, formal version. It is extremely important for students who are in the final stages of dissertation preparation to allow ample time to gather the signatures required on the acceptance certificate and to ensure that the certificate is submitted by the proper due date.

A final two-hour oral defense will be scheduled upon completion of the dissertation, conducted by the dissertation committee and open to students and faculty, held at least two weeks before the deadline for deposit of the dissertation in a given degree cycle.

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 for the Comparative Literature Ph.D., except that at least one of the student’s three 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.

Requirements for a Secondary Field in Comparative Literature

The Department of Comparative Literature offers “Comparative Literature” as a secondary field in GSAS to enrich the background of PhD students in other departments who seek to do research and teach across the institutional boundaries of national languages and literatures. Students in the various departments of literary studies may eventually be called upon to teach comparative courses or courses in general or world literature. The secondary field in comparative literature introduces students to basic issues in the field as well as provides a graduate literary theory course for students who have not already taken such a course in their primary department.

While we recognize the degree to which literatures in a single language constitute a coherent tradition, the Department of Literature and Comparative Literature seeks to develop an awareness of how literary works move across language borders, both in the original language and in translation. We seek to call attention to theoretical issues shared across not only the boundaries of languages but 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.


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 seminars in Comparative Literature or 100-level Literature courses (which normally count for graduate credit in Comparative Literature).

Successful completion of the Second-Year Paper on a comparative topic, as prescribed for students in Comparative Literature, ideally by the end of the Spring semester of the second year.

Contact the DGS for any further questions.

Please note: Applicants for the PhD in Comparative Literature must also submit a writing sample—a paper or scholarly work—in English.

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in comparative literature may be found on our website or by contacting the DGS.

Applications for admission and grants-in-aid, together with information regarding admission procedures, may be found on the Admissions Office webpage at, or may be obtained by writing to the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. We encourage online submission of the application.

Faculty of the Department of Comparative Literature