Comparative Literature


All first- and second-year students have two official advisors: 1) the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), who for the 2021-2022 academic year is Professor Verena Conley ( and 2) a Field Advisor, who is most often a faculty member in the Department of Comparative Literature. The DGS assigns all incoming students a field advisor for their first and usually second years. Students have the option, at the start of the G2 year, of continuing with the same field advisor as during the G1 year, or of choosing another faculty member. In the third year, students have one official advisor, the Field Advisor, who often supervises the major Orals field. During the G4 year and beyond, students have as their principal advisor the chair or another member of their dissertation committee.

Course Requirements

The number of courses required for the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature is 16, of which at least 8 must be graduate (200-level) seminars. You can arrange to produce extra work, typically in the form of a graduate-style research paper, to receive 200-level credit for courses that are listed at the 100-level in; such arrangements must be made early in the semester when the course is being taken, ideally within the first two weeks of classes, because your plans must be approved by both the course instructor and the DGS. The necessary approval form is available from the Department Administrator in Dana-Palmer House, or may be downloaded from the department intranet (a link to the intranet can be found at the bottom of our main webpage:  


Your remaining 8 courses will include 100-level courses, 200-level seminars, a maximum of 3 300-level courses (Reading and Research courses; these courses are graded SAT/UNS and do not generally require a seminar paper), and a maximum of 4 language courses (language training at any level).  


Please note that the Registrar does not allow graduation credit for language courses taken SAT/UNS; the only SAT/UNS courses that count toward the 16 required for graduation are 300- level Reading and Research courses (which must be taken as SAT/UNS).  Most 300-level Reading and Research courses do not require papers, so they provide an excellent opportunity for students to do research in a particular topic without the pressure of writing an additional paper.  


During your first two years in the department you must balance coursework in the following manner: at least 4 courses in the Department of Comparative Literature (1 of these courses must be CL 299ar, the Comparative Literature Proseminar; the remaining 3 can include up to 2 100-level Comparative Literature courses and occasionally, at the discretion of the DGS, courses with a comparative focus offered in other departments); and 8 courses in 3 literatures – most students will take 4 courses in their first literature, 2 in their second literature, and 2 in their third literature, but other combinations are possible, everything from 3-3-2 to 6-1-1, based on a student’s background and needs.  You are also required to take Professing Literature 1, 2, and 3 your G1-3 years; these are one-credit courses that address career development topics relevant to the G1, G2, and G3 years, respectively.    Professing Literature is a course, and attendance at the relevant sessions is mandatory.  This course meets regularly on Tuesdays at 6pm and students are requested to make arrangements to clear their schedule for this time block.  


Students are advised that most academic employment opportunities are in national literature or area studies departments; there are very few full-time comparative literature positions in the United States. You thus are strongly encouraged, from the beginning of your graduate studies, to develop expertise in a particular national literature or other marketable field (e.g., theater, film) in addition to your comparative focus.  You also should make certain, guided by the department’s many faculty members with joint appointments in Comparative Literature and national literature/area studies departments, that you are completing the coursework and Orals reading, as well as formulating a dissertation topic that will make you competitive on the national literature job market. For more on academic employment, see the section Going on the Job Market below.  


You are expected to write two or three substantial seminar papers each semester during your first two years.  Two is the minimum expectation, for a total of at least 8 seminar papers by the time you finish your G2 year.  Three is the maximum number of seminar papers you should undertake in any given semester, so as to have time to write quality work and avoid taking INC (Incompletes – for more on INC see below).  Students taking four courses in a single semester that all require major seminar papers should speak with the DGS as soon as possible.  


Most students will write their seminar papers for their 200-level courses (with the exception of CL 299ar), but some students will find it more appropriate to write seminar papers for certain 100-level courses, particularly when these courses are in fields in which they would like to publish articles.  In the latter case, with the permission of the instructor, students often will have the option of taking 100-level courses for 200-level credit.  Students can also write seminar papers for 300-level courses. These Reading and Research courses do not generally have a writing requirement, but, with the permission of the instructor, students can write papers for them.  


The department discourages students from taking a course load that requires them to write more than three seminar papers in a semester.  If in any given semester students must take four courses that all require seminar papers, they are strongly encouraged to speak with the professors of these courses about doing alternative assignments. When asked, faculty members often will permit a student to take a 200-level seminar as a 300-level Reading and Research course (i.e., students do all the reading and participate in class discussion, but do not write a final research paper). Sometimes faculty members allow students to write two short papers rather than a long final paper or with mutual agreement with another faculty member, they accept a single expanded paper for two courses.  In general, faculty members also readily help students think about their final papers early in the semester. In all cases, you are encouraged to plan ahead.  


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


One 300-level Reading and Research course can be used as one of the 4 required Comparative Literature courses.  This Reading and Research course must be taught by a Comparative Literature faculty member, and it must have a comparative focus. If you do not write a research paper for this 300-level course, then you must write a paper on a comparative topic for one of your other courses, to be determined in consultation with the DGS. The reading list for a 300-level course used to count as one of your 200-level CL courses must be submitted to the DGS for approval during the first or second week of class.  


Under exceptional circumstances, students will be permitted to use one lower-level undergraduate course (General Education courses or courses numbered 1-99) for 100-level credit.  For 100- level credit to be granted for the course, graduate students must write longer papers than the undergraduates in the course.  To receive 100-level credit for Gen Ed courses or courses numbered 1-99, students must obtain approval from the DGS during the first or second week of class.  

In cases where the university offers regular 100- or 200-level courses in a student’s first, second, and third literatures, the student generally may not use 300-level courses to satisfy first, second, and third literature requirements.  But in cases where the university does not offer regular courses in one of your three literatures (e.g., Czech, Bengali), you will generally be permitted to use 300-level courses.  You must, however, obtain the prior approval of the DGS.  


To satisfy the literature requirements in the first, second, and third literatures, readings must be done in the original language.  Class discussion may, however, be in English. If the department determines that work was not read in the original language, departmental credit will be withheld. Occasionally, students will declare as one of their literatures a literature in which the university does not offer sufficient courses that teach texts in the original language.  In this case, if the student is a native speaker of the language, the DGS can make an exception, and grant first, second, or third literature credit for a 100- or 200-level course in which readings are done in English translation.  All exceptions must be approved by the DGS in the first or second week of the semester.  If students are not native speakers of the language, and there are no 100- or 200- level courses where reading is done in the original language, students must enroll in a 300-level course where readings are done in the original language.  


The first literature must have a historical component, whatever your area of specialization; that is, it must include at least one course in a period different from the period examined in the other courses in this literature.  


Overall, your 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 your primary area of focus. (In the case of chronological breadth, these three courses can include the historically diverse third course in the primary literature.) It is important that the focus of these three courses be distinctly different from the focus of your other work.  Thus, someone concentrating on European modernism would not be able to fulfill this requirement with three courses in the European nineteenth century; either greater historical depth or a significant cultural range (e.g., modernism in East Asia) is expected.  

Other coursework may include relevant courses in literature, language, or other disciplines relevant to your interests, such as philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, linguistics, art history or media studies.  Courses in these topics with a comparative focus occasionally can count toward the 4 required Comparative Literature courses.  Which courses can count is at the discretion of the DGS, but the department aims to be as flexible as possible.  

You are very strongly encouraged to take at least one course on the literature/culture of a world region different from that of your focus.  While students specializing in non-European literatures generally do at least some of their coursework in European literatures or in literatures outside their immediate region of focus, those specializing in European literatures have tended not to take classes on non-European literatures. However, it is important to remember that Europe is as much a world region as are Africa, East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia, and in our global world it is essential to have at least basic exposure to the literature/culture of a non- European region.  

Students are expected to fulfill all course requirements by the end of the G2 year, with the exception of those who need additional language training to take courses in their first, second, or third literatures.  These students can take a limited number of required courses into their third year.  Other exceptions are at the discretion of the DGS.  


Candidates for the PhD are required, in each year, to receive more A’s than B’s; no grade lower than B- can be counted toward the degree. More than one grade below B- clearly indicates unsatisfactory progress in the program. Students should take comfort in the fact that grades below a B are highly unusual at Harvard. If you find yourself receiving low grades in a particular course, you should speak with the DGS right away.


You should avoid taking any Incompletes (INC). Incompletes are administrative nightmares that mar the transcript and damage your chances for receiving Harvard and outside fellowships. Even worse, Incompletes taken in one semester often have a snowball effect that causes students to fall further behind in their coursework and other requirements in the following semester.

With the exception of medical, family, or other emergencies, under no circumstances are students in Comparative Literature permitted to take more than one Incomplete per semester, and, with the exception of medical, family, or other emergencies, under no circumstances are they permitted to take an Incomplete in the Proseminar (CL 299ar). 


Students who take two or more Incompletes in any given semester or an Incomplete in the Proseminar will automatically be put on Grace academic status for the semester, until the grades are recorded for these courses.  Students on grace status remain eligible for institutional aid and teaching fellowships (but not federal Title IV loans and/or work-study). 


Beginning with the class admitted in Fall 2019, all INC courses incurred during a term must be made up no later than six weeks after the start of the next term.  Any INCs not cleared by that point will become permanent. If the presence of a permanent INC causes the student to fall below the number of courses needed for satisfactory progress, the student will be placed on Grace academic status for the following semester, until an added course has made up for the Incomplete. 


For those students admitted before Fall 2019, Incompletes must be completed before the end of the semester that follows the one in which the Incomplete was taken, unless the professor sets an earlier deadline. In the absence of extenuating circumstances, students who do not resolve their INC within this timeframe will be placed on Unsatisfactory academic status, which will render them ineligible for financial support from the department and the university. Such students will lose their summer stipends, academic-year stipends, teaching fellowships, and other grants.  They also risk being required to take a leave of absence or to withdraw from the program. 


All students, regardless of entry year, risk being placed in Unsatisfactory academic status if they have not completed the coursework for these INC grades before the start of the term following the one in which the Incomplete was taken. 


Students confronted by medical or family emergencies or other extraordinary circumstances that prevent them from completing their coursework in the semester in which the course is taken are expected, before the end of the semester, to inform the DGS and/or Department Administrator that they need additional time; the DGS works with such students on a schedule for resolving INC that can be modified as circumstances warrant. 


With the exception of medical, family, or other emergencies, all Incompletes must be resolved by the beginning of the G3 year.  Students will not be permitted to register for the G3 year, nor will they be permitted to teach, if they have INC in courses being used to fulfill requirements. Likewise, students are not permitted to take Orals if they are carrying Incompletes in courses being used to fulfill requirements.  Students with Incompletes will be required to submit to the DGS a plan for completing their coursework. As in all cases, students having academic difficulties should see the DGS at their earliest opportunity. 


Please note: most students take Incompletes because they believe the extra time will allow them to write better seminar papers.  Paradoxically, this is usually not the case; sometimes an extra week or two may be necessary to produce higher quality work, but any more time than that quickly becomes counterproductive.  Perfectionism is not encouraged and in fact hinders academic progress.  You also should keep in mind that balancing several papers (deadlines) and exams per semester is excellent training for the academic life, where you will find yourself juggling far more responsibilities at once.  

Language Requirements

In September of your first year, after consulting with the DGS and your Field Advisor, you will be required to prepare a list of four (or more) proposed languages; three of these, one of which may be English, will normally be primary languages for your “first,” “second,” and “third” literatures in which you will be doing coursework, while the fourth will often be an “instrumental” language, as described below. You should submit your list of proposed languages to the DGS no later than October 1 of your first year. Your 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 you’ll be focusing.

By the time you take Orals (by the end of the G3 year), you must be proficient in at least four languages related to your course of study and long-term interests; one of these four languages may be instrumental (i.e., you need only basic reading knowledge of it). At least one language must stand in a useful cross-cultural or diachronic relationship to others (see below).

Language requirements must be finished by the end of the third year; students must complete all language requirements before taking Orals.

Candidates who wish to receive an AM after the second year must complete language requirements in three languages before that degree can be awarded (for more on the AM degree, see below).

In exceptional circumstances – i.e., when students need additional time to gain competence in an unusually difficult language such as Arabic or Chinese, or when students change their focus significantly in their G2 year – the DGS may allow students until September of the G4 year to fulfill language requirements.

Instrumental language

Your fourth language may be instrumental, that is to say, a tool for reading criticism, for engaging with philological and/or historical issues, or for making the first steps toward eventually studying the literature. You may fulfill department requirements for the fourth language by taking an upper-level language course in your instrumental language. (In such cases you must consult the DGS for approval, as the necessary level of coursework varies by language. For many languages, for example, two years of formal language training are required, while for languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, four years of formal language training are required). You also may demonstrate instrumental knowledge by passing a reading exam administered by the department. You may take this exam as many times as needed, but you must pass it by the end of the G3 year. The instrumental language is an option that may appeal to students who seek in three languages a command that includes not just reading but extends to include speaking, listening, and writing, and in one language a reading knowledge only; other students may choose to develop full command of all four languages.

Premodern or cross-cultural language

One of your four languages must be either premodern (diachronic) or cross-cultural. The term “premodern” implies that the language stands in a historically foundational or, in certain cases, diachronic relationship to one of the student’s other languages. Foundational languages would include classical Latin and Greek, biblical Hebrew, classical Arabic, classical Chinese, classical Armenian, Sanskrit and Old Irish. Normally the “premodern 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 Field Advisers should consult the DGS. There are inevitably languages that are difficult to classify in this system. A case in point is classical Japanese.  The department has considered this case twice and has decided both times that although classical Japanese (bungo) differs substantially from modern Japanese, the distinction is closer to the “medieval vs. modern” distinction that is found in other traditions (including the distinction between Old and Modern English). As a result, the department has determined that the standard foundational language for Japanese is classical Chinese. The department’s premodern requirement for students of Japanese can also be satisfied by demonstrating reading ability in kanbun.  Even so, students of Japanese are strongly encouraged to take at least a year of bungo, formal training in which is needed to read pre-twentieth century and many early twentieth-century materials.  

The term “cross-cultural” implies that this language is from a linguistic-cultural group different from that of your other three languages. Usually a candidate working primarily on European languages and literatures, and choosing not to study Latin or another classical Western 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.  Turkish and Modern Hebrew, however, do count as cross-cultural languages for students whose other three languages are European.  


In the academic year 2013-2014 the department revisited the question of what languages count as “cross-cultural” for students working on modern European literatures.  In particular, the question was raised as to whether Russian (and other Slavic languages) would count for students working on Romance and Germanic languages, or whether a student working on English, French, German, and Russian (to give one example) would also have to study Latin or another language from outside modern Europe.  Colleagues active in framing the department’s initial policy confirmed that longstanding department precedent had been that Russian had not counted as a “cross-cultural language” for students working on other European languages. During the academic year 2013-2014 faculty members determined, however, that beginning that year students of Romance and Germanic languages can petition to have a Slavic language count as a “cross-cultural language.” The department agreed that the petition will be granted only if the spirit of the cross-cultural language requirement is maintained, namely that students venture considerably far outside their comfort zones, that they take on a language that not only is difficult for them but also gives them access to a considerably different corpus of literature/culture than those with which they are already familiar, and that their studies are significantly wide-ranging.  The department remains committed to producing Ph.D.’s who have a fundamentally broad understanding of languages and literatures.


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 literature 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 could take four literature courses in one of these and two in each of the others. Such a student would then also need to take an exam in Latin or another language from outside modern Europe to meet the requirement for a language that stands in a cross-cultural or diachronic relationship to the candidate’s other languages.

Students who wish to meet the premodern/cross-cultural requirement through an exam are encouraged to take the exam as soon as they feel ready; students may take the exam as many times as necessary. The department's translation exams for the fourth language will consist of a 2-3 pp. passage from either a creative or a critical work that students are asked not to translate, but instead to summarize/discuss/analyze. Students are permitted electronic dictionaries, but only to look up words or idioms, not to look up long phrases or sentences/paragraphs. The exam will be on the honor system. Paper dictionaries will also be permitted. The goal of the exam is to demonstrate the ability to read the language in question effectively. Students are given one hour for the exam.

Students who wish to take a language exam should speak with the Department Administrator. Often it will be possible for you to see copies of old exams, to get an idea of their length, difficulty, and variety. The Department 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 provide and grade the exam.

Students whose program of study requires more than the language training and coursework outlined in the Guideare encouraged to speak with their Field Advisor and the DGS as soon as possible to make appropriate arrangements.

Second-Year Paper

The first Friday of the fall term of your G3 year you will submit a Second-Year Paper on a comparative topic of 25-30 pages (double space, Times New Roman font, 12 pt. type, 7500-9000 words).  This paper can be a study of two literatures written in two languages, but it also can look at a single linguistic corpus through a transmedia perspective (e.g., examining French-language film, together with French-language literature, and other media in French). 


The Second-Year Paper can be an expanded version of a seminar paper you wrote during the previous spring semester, or it can be an expanded version of a seminar paper you wrote in an earlier semester.  The Second-Year Paper can also be developed on the basis of an individual 300-level reading course guided by a faculty member and taken in the second and occasionally the first year in the Ph.D. program. Writing a Second-Year Paper will demonstrate your ability to do a serious comparative project.  Doing so also allows you to receive active faculty guidance on making the transition from doing coursework and writing seminar papers to writing publishable articles. The faculty member advising the Second-Year Paper (typically the instructor of the relevant seminar or 300-level course) and a secondary reader (assigned by the department usually after recommendation by the student) will provide a pass/fail grade and written comments.  


The guidelines for the Second-Year Paper are as follows:   

  • The DGS holds a brief required workshop for G2s (part of Professing Literature 2) on making the transition from writing seminar papers to writing journal articles.  

  • Second-Year Paper proposals (2 pages, double space) are due March 1 of the G2 year.  The proposal must make clear the languages, literatures, and media involved. Students wishing to change their topics after this date require the approval of the DGS.  These proposals must also be shared with the two faculty members who will serve as readers of the Second-Year Paper, in advance of the Second-Year Paper Conference.  

  • In April of the G2 year students have a Second-Year Paper Conference with the two faculty members who will the following fall serve as readers of the Second-Year Paper.  By March 15th,  please confirm a possible date range (2 weeks in April) with your faculty readers for this conference and then contact the Department Coordinator Isaure Mignotte (, who will send a Doodle to your committee to schedule the final date and time.  The Second-Year Paper conference will resemble a dissertation prospectus conference – but special attention will be given to moving from writing seminar papers to writing journal articles.  

  • Second-Year Papers will be due the first Friday of the fall term of the G3 year, giving students the summer after their G2 year to work on the paper. There will be no extensions, except in cases of family, medical, or other emergencies. Students who plan to be abroad for the summer without access to necessary research materials will be expected to plan accordingly.  Students are welcome to turn in their Second-Year Paper earlier in their graduate studies if they are prepared to do so.  

  • Comments from department faculty members will be due by the end of September of the G3 year. Students are then encouraged, but not required, to meet with their Second-Year Paper readers in October or November to discuss their papers.  

  • For guidance, students should read the book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, by Wendy Belcher (a professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton)  


The second year is also an excellent time to begin speaking with faculty about publishing opportunities as well as presenting work at conferences. Faculty members are here to help, but it is your responsibility to initiate these conversations.  


Master of Arts (AM)

Application for admission must be to the Ph.D. program; students already in the program may receive an A.M. degree en route to the doctorate.  


To obtain this degree the candidate must complete 8 semester courses. One of these courses must be the Proseminar, another must be a 200-level Comparative Literature 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 300-level 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 count toward the degree. The candidate must demonstrate proficiency in 3 languages, one of which may be English. One of the languages must be premodern or cross-cultural, as described in the requirements for the Ph.D.  


In cases where students have activated transfer credit, it is understood that if they have fulfilled the department’s course and language requirements for the Ph.D. they will also be considered to have fulfilled the department’s course and language requirements for the A.M. degree 

The Third Year and Beyond

The third and fourth year requirements in the PhD program in Comparative Literature are the PhD Orals Examination and the Prospectus Conference, respectively.

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

The basic academic work for the third year consists of preparation for the Ph.D. Orals, together with initial formulation of the Dissertation Prospectus. Most students will also start teaching in the third year (for more on teaching see below). Preparation for the Ph.D. Orals helps you build interaction with faculty members in your field (often there is some overlap with your subsequent dissertation committee), and the examination itself approximates a job interview or aspects of a campus visit. All three parts of the examination are taken together; when examiners are out of the country for extended periods, they may participate via Skype or speakerphone.  It is much better to take your Orals when you are most prepared, rather than to wait for faculty members to return from abroad.  

All course/language requirements must have been completed before taking Orals. This includes resolving Incompletes for courses being used to fulfill requirements. 


Orals should be taken by the spring of the third year; under exceptional circumstances (such as leaves of absence of key examiners) the DGS may approve an Orals date in September of the fourth year. Regardless of when Orals are taken, students must have their Dissertation Prospectus approved by the department no later than December of the G4 year. For more on the Prospectus, see below.  

The Oral examination takes two hours.  It consists of a one-hour major field and two half-hour minor field examinations, each generally with one examiner, although you may arrange to have two examiners for your major field when a single examiner does not suffice to cover the material. An examiner can also be formally involved in more than one of your three fields, but you should have a total of three or four examiners. Although you develop each list and prepare it with the primary examiner(s) for that field, examiners often join in on the conversation throughout the Orals examination.  In general, at least one of the professors on your Orals committee will be a member of the Department of Comparative Literature, but exceptions can be made when necessary. 


During the 2014-2015 academic year, the department revised Orals field requirements as follows:  

  • The major field must include a reading list of at least 40 books (or the equivalent) selected in consultation with your major field examiner(s). The major field should provide the broad context for your eventual dissertation topic, while also preparing you for the job market and to teach a survey lecture course. Some students will choose a major field with a comparative focus, while others will choose a major field devoted to a single literature.   

  • The two minor fields each involve a reading list of about 20 books or their equivalent. One minor field can be geared directly to your likely dissertation topic (in which case the minor field should not duplicate the issues raised in the major field); the other minor field may 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.  

  • Together, the 80 books across the three Orals lists must include at least 10 books in a first language, 10 books in a second language, and 10 books in a third language.  


Each list, major and minor, can be subdivided and shared between two faculty members, as needed. You must begin formulating Orals fields and lining up examiners during the spring semester of your second year.  By May 15 of your G2 year you must provide the department with the topics of your three fields as well as the names of the faculty members with whom you will be working on these fields. Ideally, you should also have all three Orals lists drawn up and approved by your three examiners and the DGS by the end of May of your G2 year.  Please also email your lists to the Department Administrator.  At minimum you must have one reading list approved by then, so that you can begin systematic reading during the summer.  All three reading lists must be approved by your three examiners and the DGS by September 15 of your G3 year.  


During your third year, you are expected to meet periodically with your three examiners, on whatever schedule fits your preparation, but you should make sure to have at least one meeting every two or three weeks with one or another examiner.  Some faculty members prefer to meet regularly with students (e.g., every other week), while others will want to meet with you only two or three times before the Oral exam. If you find that you need to meet more frequently than a particular faculty member has proposed, you should be certain to request more meetings. Be bold; different students have different backgrounds and thus different needs, and faculty members might not always be aware of your circumstances.  Should you experience any difficulties meeting with your examiners, please be in touch with the DGS as soon as possible.  


The Oral examination is graded Pass/Fail. In the very rare case of a failure in one or more fields, a student can repeat the examination on the field(s) in question at a date set by the examining committee, but no later than six months following the date of the initial exam.  If the second attempt results in a failure in one or more fields, the student will be granted a terminal AM degree, and withdrawn from the program.  


For guidance on fields and examiners, talk with your Field Adviser, with the DGS, and with other faculty members.  You need to be active in seeking out faculty members as your examiners and in setting up regular meetings with them as you prepare your lists during the spring of your G2 year and as you undertake your orals preparation over the course of the G3 year. Most departments have Orals; the Comparative Literature format might differ from that of other departments, but most faculty members across the university are very familiar with Orals.  


Some faculty members will ask you to write your own Orals list, which they then revise with you; other faculty members have set lists for particular fields. Orals can and should be deeply rewarding, as you move from taking classes to writing your prospectus and then your dissertation.  Take advantage of this time to build a solid foundation for the dissertation and other future research, as well as teaching.  

Prospectus Conference

Following the successful completion of your PhD Orals, you develop a Dissertation Prospectus of 10-12 pages, plus bibliography. Prospectuses longer than 10-12 pages (double space, Times New Roman, 12 point type) will not be considered by the department. The prospectus must be approved by the department by December of the G4 year. This means that the prospectus itself needs to be completed no later than November 1 of your fourth year, so that you have time for a Prospectus Conference with your Dissertation Committee and the opportunity to make the revisions your Dissertation Committee requests before your prospectus is submitted to the department.

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 members who participate 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 for discussion and vote at a department meeting; please submit your prospectus to the department at least one week before the department meeting at which you would like it discussed. Department meetings are scheduled well in advance; dates can be obtained from the Department Administrator.  You must have your prospectus approved by the department by December of your fourth year. Where appropriate, your PDA (or departmental academic advisor) will communicate to you any suggestions from the full faculty for changing the prospectus and the bibliography. If the department asks for small changes to the prospectus (“passed with minor changes”), there is normally no need for the members of the Dissertation Committee to reconfirm their approval.  

Chapter Meetings

Approximately once per semester and at minimum once each year, in order to remain in SAT status in the graduate program, you are required to have a chapter meeting with your dissertation committee. Most students use this occasion to discuss a completed draft of a new chapter, although you may occasionally have two chapters to discuss at a time or have a second meeting to discuss a chapter that needed substantial revision after the first chapter meeting. You also can use your chapter meeting to discuss your research/writing to date; this is recommended for those years that you do not produce two chapters.

Poggioli Faculty/Graduate Student Colloquium

The Poggioli Faculty/Graduate Student Colloquium, directed by Professor Verena Conley, is an ideal forum in which to share one or more of your dissertation chapters; attending this colloquium also allows you to observe other students developing and discussing their work. Beyond campus, you should present your work at one or two conferences a year (more than that adds little and can slow your dissertation writing); the ACLA annual meeting is particularly recommended. The department has funding to assist in conference travel, as do the Graduate Student Council, and several Area Centers on campus (see the relevant websites for details). The department also very strongly recommends that while in graduate school you send out two articles for publication, one derived from your dissertation chapters and another drawing from work separate from the dissertation, which can show the breadth of your knowledge.

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.

Secondary Fields

The Department of Comparative Literature offers Comparative Literature as a secondary field in GSAS to enrich the education of PhD students in other departments who seek to do research and teach across the institutional boundaries of national languages and literatures. 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 beginning of the G3 year, but they are encouraged to submit this paper as soon thereafter as possible.

Contact the Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Verena Conley, with any further questions.

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



Professor Verena Conley
Director of Graduate Studies