Harvard University has offered courses in comparative literature since 1894. The Department of Comparative Literature was established by vote of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on April 10, 1906; it was reorganized in 2007 in a merger with the formerly separate undergraduate Literature Concentration. The Department’s students and faculty members pursue studies in the history, theory, and criticism of literature extending beyond the limits set by national and linguistic boundaries. Our PhD program is designed to provide for the needs of students who wish to develop a unified program of study that involves literature in three or more languages. Students take a combination of Comparative Literature courses and courses in national language departments. Courses in other disciplines may be included when appropriate in individual programs. Most of the department’s faculty members also participate in one of the other departments of language and literature; members of those departments are regularly engaged in the work of this department and are generally available upon request for consultation.

All graduate students in the department are required to take the Proseminar (Comp. Lit. 299ar: What is Comparative Literature?) during their first year of residence, as well as the department’s professional development seminar CL 243hf (Survive and Thrive); candidates for the doctorate are encouraged to take at least one further course in theory and method, critical, historical, or linguistic. During the first two years of graduate study, the prospective candidate for the doctorate in Comparative Literature is expected to fulfill the residence requirements by taking courses offered in this and other departments of the University (thus also discharging the requirements for the master’s degree), and to submit the Second-Year Paper (due by the first week of the G3 year) and develop reading lists and prepare for the PhD Orals Examination (taken in the Spring of the G3 year). After passing these examinations, candidates may continue to take courses , but their primary task will be the completion of a dissertation.


Master of Arts (AM)

Application for admission must be to the PhD program, with the exception of Harvard College undergraduates with advanced standing who apply for a combined AB/AM. Students already in the PhD program may receive an AM degree in passing.

To obtain the AM the candidate must complete eight half-courses. One of these half-courses must be the Proseminar, another one must be in Comparative Literature, and the remaining six must include three in the first literature and two in the second literature. No more than one of the eight half-courses may be a reading course.

Candidates are required to have at least as many 200-level as 100-level courses, and only in rare exceptions will courses below the 100-level be allowed to count toward the degree. The candidate must demonstrate proficiency in three languages, one of which may be English. Except for AB/AM candidates, one of the languages must be premodern or cross-cultural, as described in the requirements for the PhD.


The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The number of courses required for the PhD in Comparative Literature is sixteen, of which at least eight must be graduate (200-level) seminars. Students can arrange to produce extra work, typically in the form of a graduate-style research paper, so as to receive 200-level credit for courses that are listed at the 100-level in the Courses of Instruction such an arrangement should be made early in the term when the course is being taken, if possible within the first two weeks of classes, because the plan must be approved by the course instructor and the DGS. The necessary approval form is available from the Department Administrator, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in Dana-Palmer, or may be downloaded from the department’s website

The remaining eight courses may include 100-level courses, 200-level seminars, 300-level Reading and Research Courses (reading courses generally not requiring a seminar paper), or language courses. Students will write two or three substantial seminar papers each semester during the first two years; two is the minimum (and quite sufficient) expectation, three is the maximum students should undertake to write each semester, so as to have time to do the work thoroughly. With permission of the DGS, up to four language courses may be counted toward the degree.

Students are expected to balance coursework in the following manner: at least four courses in the Department of Comparative Literature (which can include up to two of the 100-level “Literature” courses); three in a first literature; two in a second literature; and two in a third literature.

A course that is cross-listed in the Department of Comparative Literature will be counted either toward the Comparative Literature requirement or toward the national literature from which it is offered (if the readings were done in the original), but not toward both. In such cases, students should let the department administrator know how the credit should be counted.

To satisfy the literature requirements in first, second, and third literatures, reading must be done in the original language. If the DGS determines that work was not read in the original language, departmental credit will be withdrawn.

The first literature must have a historical component, whatever the area of specialization: that is, it must include at least one course in a period different from the period examined in the other two courses in this literature. Other coursework may include relevant courses in literature, in language study, or in other disciplines relevant to student interests, such as philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, linguistics, or art history.

Overall, student coursework must include a significant dimension of comparative historical or cross-cultural study. This dimension can be met by taking a minimum of three courses with a chronological or regional focus different from the primary area of focus. (In the case of a chronological breadth, these three courses could include the historically diverse third course in the primary literature.) It is important that these three courses be distinctly different from the main period and/or culture in the program. Thus someone concentrating on European modernism would not be able to fulfill this requirement with three courses in the European nineteenth century; either a greater historical depth or else a significant cultural range (for example, modernism in East Asia) would be expected. Many students will declare a chronological focus on a particular period. However, students may request a focus that covers a genre or field of study if it is followed throughout a very broad historical or cultural range, e.g., tragedy or lyric poetry in languages ancient and modern, or comparative cross-cultural poetics. In addition, students may identify a special interest in a particular literary form (such as drama, lyric, narrative, and the like) or a topic of substantial scope in literary theory (poetics, literature in its social context, the relation between literature and one of the other arts, and so forth). Whatever choice a student makes, the decision must be communicated to the DGS by April 1 during the first year of study. If a student can identify his/her focus earlier, he/she is welcome to do so.

It is the student’s responsibility to ensure that the department is informed of any change of focus, since meeting certain departmental requirements is based on this focus.


By the time students take the Oral examination (spring of the G3 year), they must know at least four languages related to their courses of study and long-term interests. One language may be studied only for instrumental reasons; at least one must stand in a useful “cross-cultural” or “diachronic” relationship to the others.

In September of the G1 year, after consulting with the DGS and field advisor, students should draw up a list of four or more proposed languages; three of these will normally constitute the literatures they declare as their “first,” “second,” and “third” literatures in which they will be doing coursework. Students should submit this list to the DGS no later than October 1st of the first year. The list of proposed languages may be revised and resubmitted at a later date so long as it meets department guidelines, but it is important at the outset to develop a solid initial plan for the languages and literatures on which the student will be focusing.

Language requirements must be finished by the end of the third year; candidates who want to take an A.M. after the second year must complete language requirements in three languages before the degree can be awarded.

Instrumental language:
One of a student’s four languages may be an “instrumental” means for reading criticism, or an access to philological and/or historical issues, or a first step toward eventually studying the literature. Students may exercise this option by taking an upper-level language course (consult the DGS for approval, as the necessary level of coursework varies by language), or by passing a reading exam administered by the department. The instrumental language is an option that may appeal to candidates who seek in three languages a command that includes not just reading but extends to include speaking, listening, and writing, and in one language reading knowledge only; other candidates may choose to develop full command of all four languages.

Premodern or cross-cultural language:
One of a student’s four languages must be either premodern (diachronic) or cross-cultural. The term “premodern” implies that this language stands in a historically foundational or, in certain cases, diachronic relationship to one of the other languages. Foundational languages would include classical Latin and Greek, biblical Hebrew, and classical Arabic, Chinese, Armenian, and Sanskrit. Normally this language is not simply the “Old” form of a modern language which is studied in Old, Middle or Medieval, and Modern forms. In the event of uncertainty, candidates and/or their advisors should consult the DGS.

The term “cross-cultural” implies that this language is from another linguistic-cultural group than the others. Usually a candidate working primarily on European languages and literatures, and choosing not to study a premodern language, would need to study a language such as Chinese or Arabic to meet this requirement. Students of Western European languages can now petition to use Russian as a cross-cultural language, if their program of study involves significant work in non-European literatures (e.g., Latin American literatures).  Normally, English will not count as a cross-cultural language. The cross-cultural requirement may be waived for students who are doing a combined AB/AM degree. However, if they are subsequently admitted to the PhD program, they must then satisfy the requirement.

Language Exams:
Competence in languages can be demonstrated by taking 100- or 200-level courses in the literatures of the languages (not language-learning courses, but ordinarily courses in the departments in which those languages are offered: arranging to do some of the required readings in the original language in a course taught in translation is not usually sufficient) or by taking a departmental translation examination. Under most circumstances PhD candidates will demonstrate competence in three of their four literatures by meeting the course requirements for the first, second, and third literatures. For instance, a student who wishes to concentrate on literatures in English, French, and Spanish would take three courses in one of these and two in each of the others. Such a student might need to take an exam to meet the requirement for a language that stands in a “cross-cultural” or “diachronic” relationship to the candidate’s literatures.

Students who want to meet the language requirement through an exam are encouraged to take it as early as they feel ready, since not passing the exam is no dishonor at all; language exams can be taken as often as necessary. . Sometimes examiners in a given language have established a set group of texts from which passages for translation will normally be drawn. For example, the classical Latin exam has tended to be a passage of 20 to 25 hexameter lines from the poetry of Virgil. The goal of the exams is to demonstrate an ability to read the language in question effectively. For that reason, students taking the exams are allowed to use dictionaries, but they are not permitted to use electronic devices. Students are allowed one hour for the examination.

Students who wish to take a language exam should approach the departmental administrator. Often it will be possible to see copies of old exams, to get an idea of their length, difficulty, and variety. The administrator is responsible for scheduling the exam and (in consultation with the DGS) for approaching faculty members in the department who are most suited to set and grade the exam.

Candidates whose program of study requires more than the language and related study outlined in previous sections of the regulations, especially those involving coursework, may design in advance appropriate arrangements in consultation with the DGS.


Candidates for the PhD are required, in a given year, to receive more A’s than B’s and no grade lower than B-. A course graded below B- will not count toward the degree; more than one course below B- would be a serious indication of unsatisfactory progress in the program.

Incompletes:  Students should avoid taking “Incompletes.” Incompletes frequently become administrative nightmares that mar the transcript and damage students’ chances in applying for fellowships. Even worse, Incompletes taken in one term can have a snowball effect that causes students to fall further behind in their coursework in the following term.

Students in Comparative Literature may not take more than one Incomplete per semester. Under no circumstances are they permitted to take an Incomplete in the Proseminar (Comp Lit 299ar: What is Comparative Literature?) or in the department’s professional development course (Comp Lit 243 hf: Survive and Thrive).  To remain in good standing, students may take no more than two Incompletes per year. By GSAS rules, Incompletes must be changed to a letter grade before the end of the following term (unless the professor sets an earlier deadline) or the student must submit a petition for an extension of the Incomplete. According to departmental policy, two unfinished Incompletes may result in the candidate being asked to withdraw from the program or to take a leave of absence. Furthermore, two Incompletes will render a student ineligible for summer stipends, which are dependent upon satisfactory progress. As in all cases, students having academic difficulties should see the DGS at their earliest opportunity.

Second-Year Paper

During the first week of their G3 year, each student submits a Second-Year Paper of 25–30 pages on a comparative topic. This can be an expanded version of a seminar paper written in an earlier semester, or it can be developed on the basis of an individual reading course guided by a faculty member. Writing a Second-Year Paper will demonstrate the ability to do a serious comparative project as the student completes coursework. Students will receive active guidance on making the transition from seminar papers to the writing of articles, including a required meeting with the DGS early in the spring semester of the G2 year, and a required Second-Year Paper Conference where the student reviews his/her Second-Year Paper prospectus with at least two faculty members. These two faculty members ordinarily will be the readers of the Second-Year Paper and will provide a pass/fail grade and written comments.

The Third Year and Beyond

The third and fourth year requirements in the PhD. program in Comparative Literature are the PhD Orals Examination and the Prospectus Conference, respectively.

Students are required to begin formulating orals fields and lining up examiners during the spring semester of their second year. They should have all three lists drawn and approved by the end of May.

The PhD Orals Examination: This exam must be taken in the spring of the G-3 year. It has a tripartite structure, consisting of a one-hour major field and two half-hour minor fields, each with one examiner:  The major field involves three (or more) languages, with a reading list of some forty books (or shorter works adding up to a comparable amount of reading), selected in consultation with the examiner to give the student’s personal take on the likely field of specialization. The major field should provide a broad context for the eventual dissertation topic, while also enabling students to demonstrate a solid knowledge of the primary field, of the sort they might be asked to draw on in creating a survey lecture course.

The two minor fields will each involve a reading list of about twenty books or their equivalent. One minor field could be geared directly to the likely dissertation topic, when known; one could have a predominantly theoretical or interdisciplinary cast. If the major field concerns literature of a single period, one of the minor fields should be based in another period.

The orals fields and lists will be reviewed and approved by the DGS once the three examiners have approved their lists. During the third year, students are expected to meet periodically with their three examiners, on whatever schedule fits their preparation, but making sure to have at least one meeting every two or three weeks with one or another examiner.

Preparation for the PhD Orals Examination is designed to help build interaction with faculty members (most likely with some direct overlap with the subsequent dissertation committee), and the examination itself will create an occasion that approximates aspects of a job interview.

Prospectus and Prospectus Conference: Following the successful completion of the PhD orals examination, students will develop a dissertation prospectus of ten to twelve pages (plus bibliography). The prospectus should be completed no later than November 15 of the fourth year, at which point the department office will schedule the prospectus conference, to be held if possible by the end of the fall semester. The conference is a meeting between the student and his/her dissertation committee, consisting of a principal dissertation advisor (PDA) and two other committee members (readers). At least one of the three must be a member of the Comparative Literature faculty (more likely, two or even all three will be members). The principal dissertation advisor can be the same faculty member as the student’s previous academic advisor, but will often not be the same. If a student’s PDA is a member of the department, then he or she also becomes the departmental academic advisor; if a student’s PDA is not a member of the department, then the student should choose a different departmental academic advisor, most likely another member of the dissertation committee.

The prospectus conference will be a discussion of a fairly broad range of reading that the student has undertaken in preparation for work on the dissertation. The conference will include a detailed discussion of the dissertation prospectus itself, with the aim of ensuring that the student is well prepared to move forward with the project and has developed both a viable conceptual structure and an appropriate outline of the chapters that will comprise the dissertation. Often, the three examiners for the PhD Orals Examination will also serve as the three faculty participants in the Prospectus Conference, but there can also be changes in personnel from one stage to the next. Ordinarily, but not necessarily, the three faculty members who participate in the Prospectus Conference will be three readers of the dissertation.

Acceptance of the Prospectus: After the prospectus conference, the prospectus, revised if necessary, will be circulated to the full faculty of the department. At a department meeting convened by the chair it will be discussed and voted on, ideally in December of the fourth year if not sooner. Where appropriate, a student’s first reader will communicate any further suggestions for revising the prospectus and the bibliography. If the department votes for further changes to the prospectus (“passed with minor changes”), there is normally no need for the members of the Committee to reconfirm their approval.

Submission of the Dissertation

It is expected that students will regularly submit chapters to their dissertation committee. A Chapter Meeting will be held upon completion of a full draft of each chapter of a dissertation.  This meeting, which brings together the three committee members in conversation with the student, will be scheduled by the department at the time a draft is circulated, and will be held if possible about two to three weeks after the submission of a chapter. These meetings should supplement rather than replace written feedback, which can be sent in advance of the meeting or handed over at that time. When substantial revisions are requested, committee members should provide timely written comments, though a second meeting on the chapter usually is not needed.

A full version of the dissertation must be submitted to every member of the dissertation committee at least 6 weeks prior to the GSAS Registrar’s deadline for submitting dissertations for a particular degree period. This deadline will allow committee members to make final suggestions and give their approval before the manuscript is printed in its final, formal version. It is extremely important for students who are in the final stages of dissertation preparation to allow ample time to gather the signatures required on the acceptance certificate and to ensure that the certificate is submitted by the proper due date.

A final two-hour oral defense will be scheduled upon completion of the dissertation, conducted by the dissertation committee and open to students and faculty, held at least two weeks before the deadline for deposit of the dissertation in a given degree cycle.


The PhD in Comparative Literature with a Special Program in the Study of Oral Tradition and Literature

The requirements for this special program are essentially the same as those listed above for the Comparative Literature Ph.D., except that at least one of the student’s three literatures must constitute or at least include a substantial corpus that is independent of written transmission and that derives from collections of performance recorded under strictly supervised conditions of fieldwork.

A major resource for such purposes is the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard. Students in this program are overseen by the department’s Committee on the Study of Oral Tradition and Literature.


The Department of Comparative Literature offers Comparative Literature as a secondary field in GSAS to enrich the education of Ph.D. students in other departments who seek to do research and teach across the institutional boundaries of national languages and literatures. As faculty members, students specializing in a national literature may be called on to teach comparative courses or courses in general or world literature. The secondary field in Comparative Literature prepares them to do so by introducing them to basic issues in the field.

Although the department recognizes that literatures in a single language constitute a coherent tradition, Comparative Literature seeks to develop an awareness of how literary works move across language borders, both in the original language and in translation.  The department calls attention to theoretical issues shared not only across the boundaries of languages but also across very different traditions.


An ability to work in literatures in at least three languages. Normally this will be demonstrated by coursework in which at least some of the primary readings are in the language. In certain circumstances (for example, if one of the languages is the student’s native language) the DGS may waive the requirement that competence in a language be demonstrated by coursework. If English is used as one of the languages, the other two languages should show some breadth; that is, they may not be closely allied, either linguistically or by academic convention (e.g., Spanish and Portuguese, Urdu and Hindi, classical and modern Chinese, or Greek and Latin). The judgment regarding what can legitimately count for the set of three languages will be at the discretion of the DGS.


1. Four courses, one of which must be the Comparative Literature proseminar and two of which must be other Comparative Literature seminars at the 200 level. The remaining course requirements will be met by either 200-level seminars in Comparative Literature or 100-level Literature courses, which normally count for graduate credit in Comparative Literature.

2. Successful completion of a Second-Year Paper of 25-30 pages on a comparative topic, as required for students in Comparative Literature.  Students doing a secondary field in Comparative Literature do not need to submit the Second-Year Paper by the first week of the G3 year, but they are encouraged to submit this paper as soon thereafter as possible.

Contact the Director of Graduate Studies, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with any further questions.

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in comparative literature may be found on our website

Please note: Applicants for the PhD in Comparative Literature must also submit a writing sample—a paper or scholarly work—in English.

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in comparative literature may be found on our website or by contacting the DGS.

Applications for admission and grants-in-aid, together with information regarding admission procedures, may be found on the Admissions Office webpage at www.gsas.harvard.edu, or may be obtained by writing to the Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center 350, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. We encourage online submission of the application.

Faculty of the Department of Comparative Literature