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American Studies

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Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

Overview: Here follows an outline of the regulations for students in Harvard’s American Studies Program. 

  1. Coursework, including language requirement
    1. Advising
    2. Language requirement
    3. Courses
      1. The coursework requirement
      2. Grade requirements
      3. Incomplete grades
  2. General examination 
  3. Teaching 
  4. The Dissertation
    1. Advising: dissertation committees
    2. Dissertation prospectus submission and conference
    3. Dissertation chapter conference
    4.  Dissertation review

1. Coursework, including language requirement

a. Advising

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) is the advisor of record for all students until the student identifies one or more dissertation advisors in the third year. The DGS arranges, in consultation with the student, an informal advisor in the student’s subfield of interest. The purpose of this informal advisor is to supplement the DGS’s advising regarding course selection, faculty connections, and to offer early-career mentorship. Students should also form relationships with any faculty who may eventually serve on the general exam or dissertation committees.  
Petitions for exceptions to any of the Program’s regulations should be directed to the DGS as soon as the student becomes aware of the need for an exception.  

b. Language Requirement 

Students must demonstrate fluent reading knowledge of one language other than English relevant to the student’s interest. Students will ordinarily fulfill the language requirement by passing with high marks an examination given by the History or English departments or in specially arranged examinations. Students are also encouraged to enroll in at least one course for credit in which advanced work with texts in other languages is undertaken.  
Students with language preparation should plan to take their examination during their first week of G1. Those without language preparation should, in consultation with the DGS, plan to develop competency. Fellowships are available for language study between G1 and G2.  

Students who have the language requirement unfulfilled at the beginning of G2 must ordinarily take a language exam in September. If they do not pass, they should enroll in an approved language course and pass the exam in January. No student may take the general examination until the language requirement has been met.  

c. Courses

i. The coursework requirement 

The interdisciplinary purposes of the program require that students take courses in a variety of departments relevant to their interests. To ensure a coherent program of study, they must plan their schedules in consultation with the Program DGS. 

Each student must be enrolled full-time for four terms. The typical load is four courses per term and the typical number of credits per course is four. All plans of study must be approved by the DGS and must include the following: 

  • American Studies 200 and 201, offered in the fall terms of their first and second years.  
  • Two courses, taken from among the offerings of two different departments, in which the student completes a substantial piece of independent, graduate-level research. Courses in which the final project is a literature review of bibliographical essay are not appropriate for this requirement. 
  • Two courses focused outside the study of the United States. 
  • The remainder of the student’s first three terms will consist of work in fields appropriate to the student’s general examination. 
  • In the fourth term, four reading courses are taken in preparation for the general examination. These correspond to the four parts of the student’s general examination and are supervised by the student’s examiners. These will be American Studies 398 or the equivalent readings course in the examiner’s home department. 
  • By the end of the fourth term, the student shall have completed 11 courses with letter grades averaging B+ or better. 
  • To ensure compliance with Harvard Griffin GSAS rules, the DGS may allow students to receive credit for participation in the American Studies Workshop or comparable academic experience. 
  • In the third year, a final course is required: American Studies 314: Pedagogy and Professional Development. The course is four credits taken over the full year; two credits in the fall and two in the spring. This yearlong course is designed to complement the students’ first year as a teaching fellow.  
  • All coursework requirements (except 314), and the language requirement, must be met before taking the general examination. 

ii. Grade Requirements

Students must maintain a grade average of B+ or better in each year of graduate work. Each student must do work of an A or A- level in at least one seminar. 

iii. Incomplete Grades

Students may have only one incomplete when they register for their next term.  The Harvard Griffin GSAS rules must be followed: 

Incomplete grades (INC) are granted to graduate students only at the discretion of the instructor. If a student receives an INC, the student must complete the work of the course before the end of the next regular term. For example, if a student receives an INC during the fall term, the student must complete the coursework during the subsequent spring term by submitting work before the final day of the spring term. Even if the student’s registration status during the term is leave of absence, the student must complete coursework during this time frame. However, the only exception is if the student is given an earlier deadline by the instructor. If the work is not submitted within the required time frame, the INC becomes a permanent grade unless the student has petitioned successfully for an extension. (For the extension form, and this Harvard Griffin GSAS regulation on the Graduate School’s website, see Grade and Examination Requirements).

* INC grades incurred in cross-registered courses in another school are subject to Harvard Griffin GSAS rules and deadlines unless the other school’s deadlines are earlier. 

* Extensions must be approved both by Harvard Griffin GSAS and by the other school. 

* Incomplete grades cannot be changed once a final degree has been awarded. 

* Students who receive an E or a permanent incomplete (INC) or absent (ABS) may retake the class for credit; however, both grades will appear on the transcript. 

All incompletes must be resolved before taking the general examination. 

2. General Examination

Students must pass a two-hour oral examination conducted by four members of the faculty, ordinarily at the end of their G2. The exam must take place no later than the end of September in their G3.  

One hour of that examination will be devoted to the student’s major field, and one half-hour each of two minor fields.  

The major field must cover the full sweep of a single discipline such as history, literature, law, or musicology. Normally, there will be two examiners in the major field. They may divide the field chronologically or thematically as long as there is full coverage of themes central to teaching and scholarship in the discipline. 

Minor fields should be chosen from two areas of study distinct from the major field. A minor field may be defined chronologically or thematically as long as it covers a significant range of material. For example, a student whose major field is American literature and whose primary area of interest is 19th-century fiction might prepare one minor field in 19th-century US history and another in 19th-century music. Or, a student whose major field is US history and who plans to write a dissertation on race relations in the 1930s might prepare a minor field in American protest literature over time and another in African-American Studies. 

Field preparation should be seen as laying a broad foundation for future teaching and scholarship rather than as specific preparation for writing a dissertation.

Students should work with the DGS and individual faculty members in identifying their fields and selecting courses; they will also work together to create and design reading lists for the exam.  

By the end of the third term, students will present to the DGS for approval the exam field titles and examiners. Ordinarily, at least one member of the general exam committee will be affiliated with the Committee on Higher Degrees in American Studies. One examiner may be from outside Harvard. 

If a student fails the general examination, and the examining committee agrees that the student may retake it, the committee will set a date (not earlier than six months after the date of the first examination) by which the second examination must be taken. Students who fail the general examination or postpone it beyond September of their third year may not teach until they have passed the examination, unless the chair grants an exception due to extraordinary circumstances. 

3. Teaching

Ordinarily, a student’s first appointment as a teaching fellow (TF) is in the fall term of the third year. Serving as a TF is not a requirement of writing a dissertation and being awarded the PhD in American Studies.  However, being a TF is intrinsic to the Graduate School’s funding for students in the humanities and social sciences. 

For more on funding and the place of teaching, see Funding and Aid. A more extensive section of the Graduate School’s website on the topic of TFing at Harvard can be found here.  

4. The Dissertation

a. Advising: dissertation committees 

After passing the general examination, the student will select a dissertation topic and identify an advisor/s who will form the nucleus of the dissertation committee. At least three members are required, a fourth is possible. It is common but not required for dissertation committees to be selected from members of the general exam committee.

There are three models for dissertation advising: 

  1. The first model calls for a primary advisor who takes principal charge of advising the dissertation, with second and third dissertation committee members involved to a greater or lesser degree according to the wishes of the student and the faculty members involved. 
  2.  The second model involves two co-advisors, both of whom are involved equally and continually with the project, with a third dissertation committee member to be brought in at some later stage. 
  3.  The third model involves a committee of three, all of whom advise and sign off on the dissertation and take roughly equal responsibility in its direction. 

The dissertation committee must consist of at least three advisors, two of which must be on-ladder faculty members. The chair must be an on-ladder faculty member affiliated with the Program in American Studies.  

The advising mode will be chosen when the dissertation prospectus is submitted.  

The American Studies Committee is responsible for resolving potential issues between the advisors and the students. 

b. Dissertation prospectus submission and conference 

No later than after spring break, all G3s will submit their dissertation prospectus for approval to their dissertation chair or committee. A dissertation colloquium will be held the first Monday of reading week on which students will present their prospectus to the American Studies committee for feedback and approval.  

c. Dissertation chapter conference 

Upon completion of one chapter approved by the dissertation committee, each student shall present one chapter to assembled American Studies faculty and students. Dates for chapter conferences are set by the program administrator near the end of each term. Ordinarily, the chapter is presented during the fourth or fifth year in advance of taking the Graduate School’s completion fellowship. 

d. Dissertation Review

Following are the guidelines for the American Studies “dissertation review,” colloquially termed the “defense.” 

  • The review committee will consist of the student’s dissertation committee.
  • The student should submit the final draft of the dissertation to their committee no later than two months before the Registrar’s deadline for final submission. The student will inform the American Studies administrator that the draft has been submitted, and the administrator will gain the approval of the dissertation director before scheduling the review. The dissertation review will normally occur not later than April 15 for a May degree, not later than September 1 for a November degree, and not later than December 15 for a March degree.
  • The review will last for 90 minutes. It will begin with a 5- to 10-minute presentation, in which the student will offer an overview of the dissertation’s thesis, method, argument, and findings. The candidate will also offer her/his assessment of the work’s contributions to scholarship and indicate areas in which feedback is sought. Following this brief presentation, each committee member will offer approximately 5 to 10 minutes of comment, during or after which a conversation will ensue, the objective of which is to indicate the dissertation’s strengths and weaknesses and provide advice for publication. The committee may require minor revisions that can be completed quickly before the Registrar’s submission deadline.
  • Once the dissertation has been successfully defended, members of the dissertation committee will sign the dissertation acceptance certificate. The dissertation director will then write a report, ranging from a paragraph to a few pages, which summarizes the discussions of the review committee. The report shall be sent to the student with a copy to the American Studies administrator, ideally no later than two weeks after the review.
  • Upon successful defense of the dissertation, the student must submit the dissertation according to the FAS Registrar’s procedures.
  • This requirement is for all students in the program filing for the PhD degree after June 2009. A student may petition the chair to have the dissertation review waived for reasons of hardship.

Contact Info

American Studies Website

Tamira Beth Stephens 
Department Administrator 
Send Email


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