Comparative Literature


All first- and second-year students have two official advisors: 1) the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), who for the 2020-2021 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 PhD 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; 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 website.

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).

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 three 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 addresses career development topics relevant to the G1, G2, and G3 years, respectively. Typically, you’ll be attending three of these sessions each year. 

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, or art history. 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.

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) 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.


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 unsatisfactory 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.

Students who are carrying two or more Incompletes at any given time will face the same penalties. They also risk being required to take a leave of absence or to withdraw from the program.

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.

By GSAS rules, outlined in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook, 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 UNS status.

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.

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, and 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 Advisors 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 another linguistic-cultural group than 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.

Students of Romance and Germanic languages can petition to have a Slavic language count as a “cross-cultural language.” This 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 PhD’s who have a fundamentally broad understanding of languages and literatures.

The premodern/cross-cultural language requirement may be waived for students who are doing a combined AB/AM degree. However, if such students are subsequently admitted to the PhD program, they must then satisfy the premodern/cross-cultural 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 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 their G3year students are required to submit a Second-Year Paper on a comparative topic.  This paper must be 25-30 pages (double space, Times New Roman font, 12 pt. type, 7500-9000 words). It 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 written 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 PhD 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 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 PhD program, with the exception of Harvard College undergraduates with advanced standing who apply for a combined AB/AM. Students already in the PhD program may receive an AM degree in passing.

To obtain the AM the candidate must complete eight semester courses. One of these four-credit 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 four-credit 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 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 PhD Orals, together with initial formulation of the Dissertation Prospectus. Most students will also start teaching in the third year. 

Preparation for the PhD Orals helps you build connections with faculty members in your field (often there is some overlap between a student’s orals committee and 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 be complete 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.

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 School 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