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Film and Visual Studies

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

The Program

The graduate program in Film and Visual Studies (FVS) leads to a doctor of philosophy (PhD). The core emphasis of this research degree is the theory and history of media in relation to the visual arts—an emphasis that is often called "visual studies."

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 in other departments pursuing serious research in audiovisual and related media, including visual art, 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 14 courses with no grade lower than B.


  • A minimum of 14 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, one is required—AFVS 272: Film and Visual Studies. 
  • At least 7 of the 14 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 FVS 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 confirmation from 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 Harvard Griffin GSAS 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 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.
  • One of these eight courses must be AFVS 272: 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 the students' command of their scholarly fields and their ability to write a dissertation. They will normally take place together in March after spring break of the third year of study and will be supervised by an examination committee appointed each year from members of the FVS Graduate Committee.

Qualifying Paper

The qualifying paper is required of all students, including students who have completed a master's thesis elsewhere. It is ordinarily developed from a seminar paper, research paper, or portion of a master's thesis. It is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words in length, including notes. The paper should demonstrate the student's independence of thinking and research, their ability to use primary source materials, and their proficiency in writing and presentation. Following close consultation with their field advisors, students at the beginning of their third term of residence will submit to the DGS the proposed topic of the paper and a timetable for its completion. The paper should be submitted two weeks before the general examination.  A student may request that a master's thesis written for another institution be substituted in lieu of a qualifying paper; this request must be approved by the DGS and two members of the FVS faculty.

Written and Oral Examinations and Syllabi

The general examination tests students’ knowledge of film, media, art, and visual studies in two areas: film and visual studies, and a special topic of the student’s choice (e.g. performance, documentary, media archaeology, sound art, animation, etc.) that should be related to their prospective dissertation topic. The film and visual studies general exam must be field-defining. It should not simply be historiographical. The idea behind this is that it should allow you to demonstrate command of the discipline, hybrid and unruly though it may be, and develop your own profile in relationship to it. Both sections of the general exam, "Film and Visual Studies" and "Special Topic," must also include an annotated syllabus for a course you would be prepared to teach on the subject.

By mid-March of their second year, students select a faculty reader to supervise preparation in both of these areas. Ordinarily, film and visual studies readers will be members of the FVS Faculty Committee; the special topic reader may but need not be. The two readers constitute the committee and will administer the written and oral components of the examination. One of them will serve as chair of the committee. In addition to the reading lists (which must be approved in advance by the two readers), students are expected to be familiar with a corpus of visual material related to the exams (including but not limited to works of art, films, etc.).   

Scheduling the Examinations

Students are required to select their two readers and finalize the film and visual studies list by May 30 of the second year. The special topic list should be finalized with the special topic adviser by September 30 of the third year. Ordinarily, the written examination takes place in mid-March, the week after spring break of the third year, and the oral examination a week after the written examination in late March or early April.

The written examination (two days): Students will be asked to respond to questions prepared by the examiners; they are ordinarily given at least three essay questions for each bibliography from which they choose one. The first day of the written exam covers the film and visual studies section of the exam. The second day of the written exam covers the special topics section of the exam. Students will receive the questions each day at 9:00 a.m. and will be given a quiet place in which to work; they will submit their essay by noon. Normal standards regarding originality and citation apply; please see the Harvard Griffin GSAS Handbook for information regarding these standards.

Oral examination (two hours): Students will be asked to review, clarify, and defend arguments presented in the written examinations as well as their syllabi. Candidates should also expect to present and discuss preliminary ideas and research for their proposed thesis topic. Students whose performance on the examination is not satisfactory will be given one opportunity to repeat all or a portion of the examinations.

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 include members of the general exam committee.) The student will convey the proposed membership of the dissertation committee to the DGS and the Graduate Coordinator by May 31 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 November 1 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, media, art, and visual studies. 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.  

Students in G4 and above must meet annually with their dissertation committee, in the spring term of each year, to share and evaluate their progress on the dissertation. Students should contact their committee members, cc-ing the Graduate Coordinator, to set up this meeting, and should confirm in advance the date and hour of the meeting 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 fifth 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.   


Students begin teaching in their third year. Ordinarily, they teach discussion sections in art, film, and visual studies courses. Students interested in serving as teaching fellows in studio or film/video courses are encouraged to directly reach out as early as possible to faculty with whom they would be interested in teaching. Where it relates to their creative practice, they are also encouraged to take film/video and studio courses themselves. 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.

Contact Info

Film and Visual Studies Website

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