Film and Visual Studies

The Program

The Graduate Program in Film and Visual Studies leads to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The core emphasis of this research degree is the theory and history of moving images in relation to the visual arts.

The Program does not admit candidates who seek a terminal AM degree. Students may apply for a master’s degree after advancing to PhD candidacy. A master’s degree may also be offered to students unable to complete the PhD. The expected timetable for completion of the doctoral degree is five to six years.

For graduate students pursuing serious research in film and related visual media in other departments who wish to have their work validated by this program, a secondary field in Film and Visual Studies is offered.

Residence and Academic Standing

Two years of enrollment for full-time study are a minimum requirement, as well as at least fourteen courses with no grade lower than B.


  • A minimum of fourteen courses must be completed by the end of the second year. Normal progression would include eight courses in the first year and six courses in the second.
  • Of these fourteen courses, two are required: AFVS 270, the Proseminar in Film and Visual Studies: History and AFVS 271, Proseminar in Film and Visual Studies: Theory. The proseminars are normally taken in the first year of study.
  • At least seven of the fourteen courses must be at the 200 level.
  • In addition, at least seven of the courses must be chosen from a list of courses approved for credit by the Film and Visual Studies Graduate Committee, or as approved by the director of graduate studies (DGS).
  • The remaining courses (including courses in other departments or transferred from other schools) may be either the 200 or 100 level.
  • One of the non-200 level courses may be taken as a 300-level reading and research course, but not before the second term of residence. Other reading and research courses will be permitted in exceptional circumstances, and with the confirmation of the professor that the work is essential to the student’s program and not offered elsewhere in the existing curriculum.

Credit for Work Done Elsewhere

  • Students entering the Graduate School who have done graduate work elsewhere may apply for transfer of credit at the end of one full term of satisfactory work. 
  • The amount and kind of credit shall be decided by the DGS with the advice and consent of the FVS Graduate Committee, but in no case will it exceed six half-courses (24 credits). The decision will be partially based on the nature of students' work done elsewhere and on their record in their first year at Harvard.  

Language Requirements

Advanced reading knowledge of one foreign language is required. This language must be relevant to the student's program of study and confirmed as such by the DGS. Students must provide evidence of language skills comparable to two full years of university study in one of two ways: (1) a grade of B or better on a proficiency examination administered by the relevant language department or (2) successful completion (a grade of B or better) of a full second-year or higher course of study taught in a foreign language. Please note that first- and second-year language courses do not count towards the FVS course requirements.


No more than one Incomplete may be carried forward at any one time. Students must complete the work of the incomplete course before the end of the following term, even if the student’s registration status during that term is leave of absence, unless they are given an earlier deadline by the instructor. This policy includes courses in the student’s plan of study taken outside of Film and Visual Studies. Normally, additional Incompletes will be considered “permanent” and may not be completed at a later date.

Additional courses will need to be taken in place of any permanent Incompletes, unless or until the required number of courses has been completed.

Delay in completing the fourteen courses will necessitate the postponement of the student’s general examination to the following academic year. A student who is still unprepared to take the examination at that time will not be permitted to continue in the program.

Students may not take an Incomplete in any course during the second term of the second year.

(Non-Terminal) Master of Arts (AM)

  • Students must complete at least eight four-credit courses in Film and Visual Studies, maintaining a minimum GPA of 3.5 (B+) in all classes.
  • Two of these eight courses must be the proseminars in Film and Visual Studies.
  • Students are also required to have as many 200-level courses as 100-level.
  • No more than one reading course is allowed for credit.
  • Students must fulfill the language requirement.


In the first year of graduate study, students will be advised primarily by the DGS. After the first year, working with the DGS, the student will identify a faculty member as their advisor. The student will then consult that faculty member and the graduate coordinator to formalize this agreement. If a student is unable to identify an advisor by the end of the first year, the DGS will remain their default advisor. By the end of their second year, however, students must have found a regular advisor.

When considering an advisor, students should select a faculty member who would be a likely dissertation director. The dissertation director will assume primary responsibility for advising the thesis, with a second and third reader involved to a greater or lesser degree according to the disposition of the student and the primary advisor. The dissertation director and advisers will also help students choose and prepare field topics for the general examination.

Advancement to Candidacy

Advancement to candidacy for a PhD in Film and Visual Studies consists of three components: a qualifying paper, a written general examination, and an oral examination. The examinations are designed to test students’ mastery of scholarly fields and the ability to write a dissertation. They will normally take place in March after Spring Break during the third year of study and will be supervised by members of their Examination Committee. Students normally take the exam with members of their cohort. 

Qualifying Paper

The qualifying paper is required of all students, including those who have completed a master’s thesis elsewhere. It is ordinarily developed from an existing seminar paper, research paper, or portion of a master’s thesis. It is about 5,000 to 10,000 words, including footnotes. The paper should demonstrate the student’s independence of thinking and research, ability to use primary and secondary source materials, and proficiency in writing and presentation. The paper must be submitted two weeks before the general examination. A student may request that a master’s thesis written at another institution be substituted in lieu of a qualifying paper; this request must be approved by the DGS and two members of the Film Studies Graduate Committee.

General Examination

The general examination is designed to test students’ mastery of their scholarly fields as well as general knowledge of the history, theory, and aesthetics of moving images in relation to the visual and performing arts. The examination consists of three written components—one relating to history, one to theory and aesthetics, and one to a special topics field—and one oral component. Each written component comprises a three-hour exam with three essay questions, of which the student must choose one. The oral examination normally will last two hours.

The general history examination is based on an extensive bibliography and filmography, regularly updated by the faculty in consultation with the Graduate Student Committee. This component is designed to test the breadth of students’ mastery of the history of moving visual media and their ability to synthesize and analyze materials relevant to that history.

The general theory and aesthetics examination is based on an extensive bibliography and filmography. This component is designed to test the breadth of students’ mastery of the aesthetics of moving visual media and pertinent theories, as well as students’ ability to develop synthetic arguments in relation to those theories.

The special topics field is examined on the basis of a bibliography and filmography developed by students in consultation with a field advisor or advisors, as approved by the DGS. The field may range across historical and theoretical topics or concentrate in a focused way on specific problems or questions in film and visual studies and related areas. The field may be thought of as an anticipation of the student’s dissertation research, as an extension of the student’s research interests, or as an opportunity to explore previously unexamined interests in the student’s course of study.

At the oral examination, students will be asked to review, deepen, clarify, and defend their arguments as presented in the qualifying paper and written examinations. Candidates will also present and discuss preliminary ideas and research for their proposed dissertation topic. Students whose performance on the examination is not satisfactory will be given one additional opportunity to repeat all or a portion of the exams.

The Dissertation

The Dissertation Prospectus

After the successful completion of the general examinations, students are expected to constitute a dissertation committee and choose a topic for the dissertation.

The dissertation committee should consist of the thesis director and two additional readers. (This committee will typically correspond to the general exam committee.) The student will convey the proposed membership of the dissertation committee to the DGS by April 15th of the third year of study. The DGS will confirm the committee’s membership and pass on this information to the graduate coordinator. They will in turn provide formal confirmation of all pertinent deadlines to members of the dissertation committee and the student.

After constituting the dissertation committee, students should confer with their advisors and decide on a thesis topic. Once they have done so, they should write a prospectus, i.e., a formal dissertation proposal. The expectations for the shape and substance of the prospectus will be determined by the advisor in conference with the student; the length of the prospectus will typically be about 3,000 words and include a working bibliography.

To sustain satisfactory progress toward the degree, students will be expected to have their prospectus approved within five months after completion of the general examination. Doctoral candidates in Film and Visual Studies will normally submit their dissertation prospectus by September 30th of their fourth year of study.

The Dissertation

After the dissertation prospectus has been approved, candidates work closely with their dissertation director and readers. The PhD dissertation is expected to be an original and substantial work of scholarship or criticism. The program will accept dissertations on a great variety of topics involving a broad range of approaches to film and related visual media. It sets no specific page limits, preferring to give students and directors as much freedom as possible.  


In order to ensure timely progress toward the doctoral degree, students are expected to complete at least one dissertation chapter each year by April 15, beginning with the G4 year. Copies of chapters should be submitted by the deadline to the members of the thesis committee as well as to the Graduate Coordinator.  


Program students are strongly encouraged to apply for a Dissertation Completion Fellowship (DCF) in the January/February application cycle of their 5th year. To qualify for the DCF, you will need to have completed two chapters at the time of application. If you plan on applying for the DCF, please be sure to meet in advance of the deadline with your chief advisor as well as the DGS.  


Shortly after April 15 in the G5 year, students will have a two-hour review meeting with the members of their dissertation committee to assess the progress they have made on their thesis.  


Students begin teaching in their third year. Ordinarily they teach discussion sections in Film Studies and in Art, Film and Visual Studies courses. It may also be possible to serve as teaching fellows for studio courses. Preparation for a teaching career is a required part of each student’s training, and teaching fellows benefit from the supervision and guidance of department members. Teaching fellows are also encouraged to avail themselves of the facilities at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.