Degree Programs


The Graduate Program in English leads to the degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy. 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 course work 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 to writing the Dissertation Prospectus. The fourth, fifth, and, when 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 be taken for credit.

Credit For Work Done Elsewhere

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. Students will be expected to show proficiency in either two ancient languages, or two modern languages, or one ancient and one modern language.

Normally, Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian are the accepted languages. Other languages may be acceptable if deemed relevant and appropriate to a student's program of study.Students may fulfill the ancient and modern 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 [for the ancient requirement] by taking two terms of elementary Latin or 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.

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 taken by February of the third year of graduate study, and is conducted by a three-person examination committee, chosen by individual students no later than September of the third year, normally from among the tenured and ladder faculty of the English department.

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 (one of whom may be the DGS), is due in the Graduate Office by May 15 of the third year.

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 on which students plan 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 fourth year, if they are to be eligible to apply for completion fellowships in their fifth year, and (2) that students generally enter the job market in the fall of the fifth or 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 fourth year, but that these require applications which are due as early as December or January of the third year.

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 adviser 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 fourth faculty adviser from a department other than English.

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
  • those present will normally be: the student; the three advisors; any interested faculty; any interested graduate students
  • the event will start with a 15–20 minute presentation by the student and last at most 90 minutes in all
  • if a student has left Cambridge and cannot return easily for this purpose, we will arrange for a video-link discussion
  • arrangements will be overseen by the Graduate Office but conducted by the student (as per the Fields examination)

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.

Students will be required, in order to be recommended for the degree by the department, to submit to the Graduate Office a form specifying the defense date. The form will be available online on the departmental web site. Candidates should print out this form and set to work on establishing the defense date well before the degree application and defense forms are due. This form will be signed by the Chair of the advisory committee and must be submitted along with the requisite Application for Degree.


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 and are encouraged to avail themselves of the facilities at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

General Guidelines for Admission

The following is a set of general guidelines for the English department's admissions process. It should be noted that while several areas are emphasized here, the Admissions Committee carefully examines the overall profile of each applicant, taking these and other aspects of the application into consideration:

The Writing Sample: The writing sample is one of the most important portions of the application. Candidates should submit only one double-spaced, 15- to 20-page paper, in 12-point type with normal margins. The writing sample must be an example of critical writing (rather than creative writing) on a subject directly related to English. Applicants should not send longer papers with instructions to read an excerpt or excerpts, but should edit the sample themselves so that they submit only up to twenty pages. Candidates who know the field in which they expect to specialize should, when possible, submit a writing sample related to that field.

Grades: While candidates' overall GPA is important, it is more important to have an average of no lower than A- in literature courses (and related courses). In addition, while we encourage applications from candidates in programs other than English, they must have both the requisite critical skills and a foundation in English literature for graduate work in English. Most of our successful candidates have some knowledge of all the major fields of English literary study and advanced knowledge of the field in which they intend to study.

Letters of Recommendation: It is important to have strong letters of recommendation from professors who are familiar with candidates' academic work. Applicants who have been out of school for several years should try to reestablish contact with former professors. Additional letters from employers may also be included. Recommenders should comment not only on the applicant's academic readiness for our PhD program but also on the applicants' future potential as teachers and scholars.

GREs: High scores in the Verbal (166, or 700 in the old scoring system) and Subject tests (650 in English Literature) are positive additions to the application but are by no means the most important aspect of one's candidacy. (The Quantitative and Analytical scores carry less weight than the Verbal and Subject scores.) Applicants should make timely plans to take these examinations in order to ensure that the scores arrive by the January application deadline. Scores received after mid-January may be too late to be considered.

Statement of Purpose: The Statement of Purpose is not a personal statement and should not be heavily weighted down with autobiographical anecdotes. It should focus on giving the admissions committee a clear sense of applicants' individual interests and strengths. Applicants need not indicate a precise field of specialization, if they do not know, but it is helpful to know something about a candidate's professional aspirations and sense of their own skills, as well as how the Harvard English department might help in attaining their goals. Those who already have a research topic in mind should outline it in detail, giving a sense of how they plan their progress through the program. Those who do not should at least attempt to define the questions and interests they foresee driving their work over the next few years.

Languages: While there are no specific prerequisites for admission, a strong language background helps to strengthen the application, and students who lack it should be aware that they will need to address these gaps during their first two years of graduate study.

Please Note: Applicants should make every effort to ensure that all supporting materials (e.g., recommendations, transcripts, etc.) arrive by the application deadline.

No applications for admission in this field will be accepted after the deadline set by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Faculty of the Harvard English Department