The Structure of the Program 

Coursework—To acquire a basic grounding in the core areas of the field, students must complete the following courses, normally in their first two years of residence: 

  • Linguistics 112a (Introduction to Syntactic Theory) and 112 b (Intermediate Syntax)
  • Linguistics 115a (Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology) and 115b (Intermediate Phonology)
  • Linguistics 116a (Introduction to Semantics) and 116b (Intermediate Semantics)
  • Linguistics 117r (Linguistic Field Methods)
  • Linguistics 118 (Historical and Comparative Linguistics)
  • In addition, second- and third-year students are required to enroll in Linguistics 241r (Practicum in Linguistics). Ling. 116b is not required of students concentrating in a language-intensive area of historical linguistics.

There is also a language requirement, which is described separately below.

Language Requirement

The department's language requirement has two components:

I. Reading knowledge of one language of scholarship other than English

Native speakers of qualifying languages may count their native language for this purpose. Non-native speakers may satisfy the requirement by completing a second-year language course at the university level, or by passing a one-hour departmental reading exam (dictionary permitted). 

II. Knowledge of the structure of a non-Indo-European language

This requirement may be met by taking a “structure” course (e.g.,Linguistics 171 (Structure of Chinese), a course in linguistic typology, or a second semester of Linguistics 117r (Linguistic Field Methods). Practical reading and/or speaking knowledge cannot be used to satisfy this requirement. 

Grades and Incompletes

A B+ average must be maintained in each year of graduate study. Grades below B-cannot be counted toward departmental requirements: two grades below B- in required courses may result in termination of candidacy. Ordinarily, a grade of Incomplete can only be converted into a letter grade if the work is made up before the end of the following term. No grade of Incomplete can be used to satisfy a departmental requirement.

All requirements, including the research papers, should ideally be completed by the end of the third year; with the permission of the major advisor and the DGS this may be extended to the end of the fourth year. The dissertation prospectus (see below) is due by the beginning, and in no case later than the end of the fourth year. Failure to meet program requirements in a timely fashion may result in termination of candidacy.

Generals Papers Requirement

In lieu of a formal admission to candidacy examination (“general exam”), students are required to submit and orally defend two publishable research papers, preferably by the end of the third year. The two generals papers should be in substantially different areas of linguistics.

Master of Arts (AM)

Graduate students who have completed two years of residence, who have fulfilled all the course requirements and language requirements for the PhD, and who have successfully defended one Generals paper, are eligible to petition for a master's (AM) degree.


First-year students are advised by the DGS until they choose a major advisor from the regular departmental faculty. Thereafter, progress toward completion of the PhD requirements continues to be monitored by the DGS, but the primary responsibility for overseeing study shifts to the major advisor. Students may change their major advisor at any time. By the end of the second year they should also select a co-advisor, who serves as a second advisor and faculty mentor.

The Dissertation

Dissertation Prospectus

A dissertation prospectus must be submitted to the department by the beginning of the fourth year. The prospectus should contain a summary (in approximately ten pages) of the goals and methodology of the dissertation research, a bibliography of relevant literature, and a schedule for progress toward completion.

Dissertation Committee

As part of the prospectus submission procedure, students nominate a three-person committee to serve as readers of the completed dissertation. Two of the three committee members must be regular faculty members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Final membership of the dissertation committee is subject to departmental approval. The head of the committee, if not already the major advisor, assumes this role as soon as the prospectus is approved. Students are expected to maintain regular communication with all three members of the dissertation committee during the dissertation-writing process.

Dissertation Defense

Acceptance of a PhD dissertation requires a successful public defense. The defense must be scheduled sufficiently in advance of the Registrar's deadline to allow time for corrections and revisions and to have the dissertation bound.

Please see the description of secondary fields for information about Historical Linguistics and Linguistic Theory.  


Department of Linguistics
Boylston Hall
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138
telephone: 617-495-4054
fax: 617-496-4447