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Germanic Languages and Literatures

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

German studies at Harvard is an important hub within the humanities and the social sciences, a site of exciting interdisciplinary work across many fields, including comparative approaches to literature, film and media studies, history, music, art history, and performance studies, as well as critical theory and philosophy, environmental studies and eco-criticism, social and political thought, gender and sexuality studies, the history of science, memory studies, postcolonial studies, and digital humanities.

Study for higher degrees in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures provides the opportunity to probe artistic, cultural, and conceptual movements that have taken shape over centuries and, in some cases, continue to have an impact on contemporary issues and discourses.


The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) acts as students’ primary advisor, typically for the first three terms of study or until the committee for the general examinations is constituted. The chair of that committee, and thereafter the chair of the dissertation committee, serve as the student’s primary academic advisor.

Students, in consultation with the DGS, choose the director and two readers of their dissertation committee. The director of the committee must be a member or an affiliate of the department; the second member must be a Harvard faculty member. The third member, with approval of the director in consultation with the DGS, may be a faculty member from another institution. Although not required, a fourth reader, with approval of the primary advisor and the DGS, may be added to the committee. The director and readers advise the student during the writing of the thesis and take responsibility for questions during the dissertation defense.

The DGS and the primary advisor, working in cooperation, monitor student progress through the general examinations and the dissertation. The DGS is also available as a source of support and counsel throughout students’ entire course of study.

Master of Arts (AM)

The requirements for the AM degree are as follows:

  • A minimum of two terms of full-time study, in residence. See the Registration section of Harvard Griffin GSAS policies.
  • The satisfactory completion of an approved program of eight four-credit courses or the equivalent.
    1. Four of these courses must be in the group designated in Courses of Instruction as “primarily for graduates.”
    2. Two of the four-credit courses must be the Proseminar (an introduction to research, methodology, and theory), or the equivalent, and one graduate-level seminar taught by a German department faculty member.
  •  The AM examination (see below).

All students, regardless of prior education, exams, and degrees, will take the AM examination in September of their second year. No master’s thesis is required.

The AM examination is a four-hour written and closed-book exercise, in which the student demonstrates the ability to interpret texts and to place them in pertinent historical and discursive contexts, and a one-hour oral examination one week later, which includes a brief presentation in German. The AM examination is based on a reading list to be found in the “Graduate Program” section of the department website.

Members of the AM Examinations Committee, in consultation with the department faculty, will determine whether a student will be granted permission to proceed to doctoral candidacy. They will do so on the basis of the student’s academic record, performance in the AM examination, and overall scholarly potential. A student who does not receive permission to proceed ordinarily will terminate graduate study with the AM degree.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Academic Requirements

A minimum of four terms of full-time study, in residence. Credit for graduate work done elsewhere may be granted in accordance with procedures detailed in Harvard Griffin GSAS policies. See Registration for more information about residence requirements.


  • The satisfactory completion of an approved program of eight four-credit courses beyond the AM degree.
    • Students must take the equivalent of four courses per term.
    • The department encourages students to make course choices that will allow for a comprehensive range of historical coverage and foster conversance with key epochs, movements, genres, thematics, theories, and problematics. Students are encouraged to study with as many department professors as possible so that they might be able to make well-informed choices for their examination and dissertation committees.
    • Students are required to take the Proseminar (an introduction to research methodology and theory).
    • No more than two four-credit courses from the group designated “for undergraduates and graduates” may be counted, including courses taken for the AM degree, unless the student arranges with the instructor to upgrade the course to meet graduate-level requirements and completes the requisite form; all others must be “primarily for graduates.” To ensure that their course of study has a dynamic interdisciplinary component, students are encouraged to consider taking courses in other departments that they deem to be of importance for their program of study.
  • Courses taken to make up for deficiencies in German are not included in the minimum requirement.
  • The student must normally be a member of a 200-level course taught by a member of the German department (or an affiliate) for at least three terms and earn a grade of A- or A in at least one of these courses.
  • A grade record showing more As than Bs, and no grade lower than B-. A grade of Incomplete must be converted into a letter grade before the end of the next registration period or it will become permanent, unless the student has successfully petitioned the Harvard Griffin GSAS Office of the Dean for an extension.
  • At the beginning of the second term of the first year, students may petition for credit for graduate work done elsewhere. Credit for no more than the equivalent of four Harvard graduate courses may be granted (16 credit units). Criteria for department approval of the petition (preceding Harvard Griffin GSAS approval) are: (1) The courses are graduate-level courses completed by the writing of a seminar-length paper and with an honors grade (documentation must be presented to the DGS). (2) The preponderance of courses is in the field of German studies or related to the field.

Foreign Language Requirements

Students must demonstrate competence in another foreign language, preferably a language that will be essential for their course of study and dissertation project, before they can sit for their general examinations. This requirement can be fulfilled, for instance, by passing a reading course such as French 16 (Reading Modern French), offered by Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, with a grade of A or A-, or through an equivalent demonstration of proficiency, such as university-level course work, to be approved by the DGS.


Students will as a rule teach at least one full year of Beginning German. Germanic Philology 280 (Foreign Language Pedagogy), a four-credit course divided over two terms, must normally be taken to accompany the first year of language teaching. Germanic Philology 280 may be counted toward the required courses for the degree.

There is also the possibility that students may serve as teaching fellows in large enrollment courses under the guidance of faculty members both in and outside the department.

General Examinations

After completing coursework and meeting the language requirement, students must present themselves for the general examinations. Students entering the graduate program with a Master’s degree from elsewhere and who receive at least 16-course credit units for work done elsewhere (see above, under PhD course requirements) proceed to the general examinations in October or November of their third year (to be determined by the DGS in consultation with department faculty). Students not requesting or not receiving course credit of at least 16 units for work done elsewhere proceed to the general examinations in April of their third year.

The general examinations committee must be constituted and the reading lists, approved by the committee, must be submitted to all committee members and to the DGS no later than six months prior to the examinations. Students are encouraged to initiate discussion about their general examinations with the DGS well in advance of this deadline.

The written examination consists of two four-hour sessions, taken a week apart. The first has a specifically historical emphasis and addresses itself to representative texts and significant initiatives of a particular period or epoch of roughly 50 years. The second examination has a more explicitly analytical or theoretical emphasis and addresses itself to a genre, a problematic or special topic. Choices in both instances are to be determined by students in consultation with the members of their examination committee.

A two-hour oral examination follows within two weeks of the first written examination.

The general examinations are graded Pass or Fail.

Post-Generals Schedule

After successfully completing the general examinations, the candidate should:

  1. Constitute the dissertation committee in consultation with the expected dissertation director and the DGS well in advance of completion of the dissertation prospectus.
  2. In consultation with the dissertation director and within three months of the general examinations, complete a dissertation prospectus of 2,500–3000 words (including notes), plus bibliography, for submission to the dissertation committee and then the department faculty (see below). Committee members meet or correspond (when the University is not in session) with the candidate to discuss the prospectus, after which the dissertation director makes a recommendation on acceptance to the full faculty of the department and conveys to the candidate the faculty’s decision and, should there be such, suggestions.
  3. Make steady progress with the thesis, with the assumption that it will be completed within two and at the most three years. Members of the dissertation committee will confer with the student in an annual meeting (typically in April) to take stock of work that has been done and to discuss work that remains. These conversations will take place before the annual formal reviews of student progress at the last department meeting of the academic year. Each summer the DGS will send a report to Harvard Griffin GSAS regarding the progress of each student.
  4. Submit the completed dissertation to the director according to the schedule outlined in the “Dissertation Defense Guidelines” section below. The thesis director will read it and, upon approval, pass it on to the other readers for their evaluation


The dissertation is directed by a department faculty member, read and approved by the director and the committee members, and defended publicly. A PDF copy of the completed and approved dissertation must be submitted to the Registrar’s Office electronically by the deadline set by Harvard Griffin GSAS.

Through consultation with the DGS, the academic advisor, and, if appropriate, other advisors as well, PhD candidates are urged to begin developing their dissertation topic before the general examinations and to start work on the prospectus immediately upon passing the examinations. The dissertation subject normally falls within the areas that have received attention in the general examinations. The object of the dissertation is to show the candidate’s ability to pursue extended independent research and to present the results of this research in a readable and convincing form.

Candidates first devise a topic in rough outline and discuss it with one or more members of the faculty with the goals of developing the topic and finding a director. At the same time, the other members of the dissertation committee should be selected. When a member of the faculty has agreed to serve as director, and when it has then been established who the other members of the committee are, the candidate informs the DGS. When a committee member from another department or from another university is proposed by the student, approval by the dissertation director and the DGS is required.

The prospectus outlines the topic of the dissertation, how that topic is to be addressed, and why it is important to address it. It is developed in consultation with the dissertation director and, to the extent the director or candidate finds it advisable, with the other readers. Once the prospectus is approved, the candidate and dissertation director design a writing schedule that envisions completion of the project within no more than three years.

Dissertation Defense Guidelines

  • Each student is required to defend their dissertation.
  • The dissertation director releases the dissertation for defense according to the schedule below. Such release signals preliminary acceptance of the thesis by all committee members, subject to possible additional revisions.
  • Present at the defense are the student, the dissertation committee, and any interested faculty and graduate students from the department. Other faculty and students may attend at the invitation of the student or members of the committee, subject to approval by the director.
  • Should it prove necessary to conduct the defense via web-conferencing, the dissertation director shall be the host of the meeting and engage security measures to guarantee the privacy of the virtual defense.
  • The defense lasts 90 minutes and begins with a 20-minute presentation by the student of the thesis, its genesis, and future shape as a book publication.
  • Questions will initially be posed by the dissertation committee. The dissertation director may choose to open discussion to attendees not on the dissertation committee.
  • At the end of the defense, committee members will convene to determine whether to grant approval without revisions or to grant conditional approval pending the completion of specified revisions to be overseen and approved by the thesis advisor.

Dissertation Defense Schedule

Depending on a student’s expected graduation date, the following submission schedules are necessary to account for reading time by the dissertation committee and for possible revisions. Thesis advisors and the DGS will take care to make certain that these deadlines are honored.

  • November degree: the dissertation director receives the completed thesis by the end of the third week of July, approves it for defense, and releases it to the other committee members for review, pre-defense suggestions for revision, and approval for defense by the end of the first week of August; if all is in order, the defense takes place in the first week of September; the dissertation must be submitted to Harvard Griffin GSAS before mid -September.
  • March degree: the dissertation director receives the completed thesis by the end of the first week of November, approves it for defense, and releases it to the other committee members for review, pre-defense suggestions for revisions, and approval for defense by the end of the third week of November; if all is in order, the defense takes place in the third week of December; the dissertation must be submitted to Harvard Griffin GSAS in mid -January.
  • May degree: the dissertation director receives the completed thesis by March 1, approves it for defense, and releases it to the other committee members for review, pre-defense suggestions for revision, and approval for defense by March 15; if all is in order, the defense takes place in the second week of April; the dissertation must be submitted to Harvard Griffin GSAS in mid-May.
  • Consult the 2022-2023 degree calendar for exact submission dates.

Dissertation Submission and Accessibility

In addition to submitting to ETDs @ Harvard the digital version of the accepted dissertation in order to be granted the PhD, graduating students are required to provide to the department administrator, by the dissertation submission deadline, a bound copy of the dissertation (of archival quality paper and binding) to be retained by the department. Students may request to embargo or delay the release of their work for six months, one year, two years, or more. Embargoes require the approval of the DGS or the chair of the student’s academic program; embargo periods over two years require additional approval from the department DGS. In no case may an embargo exceed six years.

Secondary Fields

For information on secondary PhD fields, please see the listing under Secondary Field. 

Contact Info

Germanic Languages and Literatures Website

Professor Eric Rentschler 
Director of Graduate Studies

Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures 
Barker Center 365 
12 Quincy Street 
Cambridge, MA 02138-3879

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