Comparative Literature

Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature, formally established in 1906 after more than a decade of the university offering courses in the field, is one of the country’s oldest and most distinguished. With a faculty that has included such scholars as Irving Babbitt, Albert Lord, Harry Levin, Claudio Guillén, and Barbara Johnson, the department has played a crucial role in shaping what remains a polymorphous discipline.  Reflecting the ongoing paradigm shift of comparative studies from an almost exclusive focus on Western European traditions to a more global awareness, our faculty ranks include specialists in the literatures and cultures not only of Western and Eastern Europe and North America, but also those of Africa, East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East; the majority of our incoming graduate students now work on at least one non-Western literature.

The department’s twenty-seven faculty members (most with joint appointments in other literature departments) and nearly fifty graduate students have come from across the globe to study, teach, and publish on literatures in dozens of languages from a wide range of historical periods. Research conducted in the department reflects a wide scope of methods, approaches, and questions. Critical theory, literary interpretation, and comparative philology provide the basis for work on translation, the history of ideas, gender, drama, oral poetics, multilingualism, religion, postcolonialism, the environmental and medical humanities, globalization, and world literature. Our students and faculty members also work in a variety of fields contiguous with literature, including architecture and the visual and dramatic arts, film and music, history, anthropology, philosophy, law, and medicine.

The department’s PhD program is designed for students who wish to develop a unified program of study that enables them to obtain the deep and rigorous training in one or two literatures that is necessary for an academic position, while simultaneously placing their major literature(s) in regional if not global context by completing coursework and doing research in additional literatures or related fields, as well as in Comparative Literature. Complimenting their seminars in Comparative Literature, students also take seminars in such departments as African and African American Studies, the Classics, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, English, Germanic Languages and Literatures, History, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Romance Languages and Literatures, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and South Asian Studies. Many students also engage in interdisciplinary work, taking courses and often earning qualification in secondary fields such as Visual and Environmental Studies, Medieval Studies, Music, and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

The department takes an active role in the career development of its students from their first year forward, taking seriously its responsibility to provide students with the expertise necessary to secure positions in academe, while also recognizing the wide range of other careers open to PhDs in Comparative Literature and encouraging students to familiarize themselves with different options. The course Professing Literature provides students in their early years with the tools to succeed in graduate school and beyond, while the Renato Poggioli Graduate Colloquium series enables students of all levels to present their works-in-progress to peers and faculty, everything from seminar papers to mock job talks.

Funding for graduate study is generally provided by a full fellowship (tuition and stipend) in the first two years as well as in the final year (dissertation completion fellowship), and by a combination of tuition grants and teaching fellowships in the intervening years. Students frequently teach in Comparative Literature and in the General Education program, as well as in the language and literature departments most closely related to their primary literature(s); they are encouraged to obtain a diverse teaching portfolio, including both language and section teaching as well as individual tutoring of department undergraduates.  Students in good standing also are guaranteed four years of summer funding.  The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard’s many area centers additionally provide a variety of fellowships for which students can compete for further support of everything from summer language training after the first year of graduate school, to dissertation research and writing in their final years.

The PhD in Comparative Literature generally takes 6-8 years, depending on a student’s prior training; most students enter with an A.M., but this degree is not required for admission.  Students are expected to complete course requirements in the first two years, take Orals and satisfy the language requirement by the end of the third year, and obtain approval for their Dissertation Prospectus in the first semester of the fourth year.  Remaining years are spent conducting research and writing the dissertation.

The impressive range of students’ dissertation topics is supported by Harvard’s extensive library resources. The largest university collection in the world, Harvard’s libraries have combined holdings of more than 16 million items.  Yet given the diverse nature of their research projects, most students also spend time away from Harvard, for both language training and study in libraries and archives. This work is largely funded by fellowships from the graduate school as well as from Harvard’s many area centers.


When in Cambridge, students enjoy the department's home, the historic Dana-Palmer House at 16 Quincy Street. With its comfortable lounge and meeting and seminar rooms as well as administrative and faculty offices, Dana-Palmer House provides an excellent setting for scholarly exchange.


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 en route to the doctorate.

To obtain the AM the candidate must complete eight semester courses. One of these courses must be the Proseminar, another must be a 200-level seminar 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 semester courses may be a 300-level reading course.

Candidates are required to have at least as many 200-level as 100-level courses, and only in rare exceptions may courses below the 100-level 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)

Course Requirements

Sixteen courses are required for the PhD in Comparative Literature, of which at least eight must be graduate (200-level) seminars. Students can arrange to do extra work, typically in the form of a graduate-level research paper, to receive 200-level credit for courses that are listed at the 100-level.

The remaining eight courses may include 100-level courses, 200-level seminars, 300-level Reading and Research Courses, or language courses; 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 (including up to two 100-level courses); and eight approved courses in national literatures, most frequently four courses in the first literature and two courses in the second and third literatures.

To satisfy the literature requirements in the first, second, and third literatures, reading must be done in the original language. The first literature must also have a historical component, regardless of the area of specialization; the first literature must include at least one course in a period different from the period of the other two courses in this literature.

Other coursework for the PhD may include relevant courses in literature, language, or other disciplines relevant to student interests, such as philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, linguistics, film, music, and 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 student’s primary area of focus.




By the time students take the Oral examination (spring of the G3 year), they must know at least four languages related to their course of study and long-term interests.  In general, three of these languages are those of their first, second, and third literatures, while the fourth language can be instrumental, meaning that students need have only a basic reading knowledge.  English can count as one of the four languages. At least one of the student’s four languages must be cross-cultural or diachronic in relation to the others.  To give two examples: students of modern Europe must obtain reading knowledge of a language from outside modern Europe, while students of modern East Asia must obtain reading knowledge of a classical East Asian language or a modern or classical language from outside East Asia.



Candidates for the PhD are required in their first two years to receive more A’s than B’s and no grade lower than B-. A course graded below B- does not count toward the degree; more than one course below a B- is a clear indication of unsatisfactory progress in the program.


Second-Year Paper

During the first week of their G3 year, students submit a Second-Year Paper of 25–30 pages (7,500-9,000 words) on a comparative topic.  The purpose of this paper, guided by two faculty members, is to facilitate the transition from writing seminar papers to writing scholarly articles.  The Second-Year Paper can be a study of two literatures written in two languages, or it can look at a single linguistic corpus through a transmedia perspective.  This paper 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.  


The PhD Orals

Students are required to begin formulating orals fields and lining up faculty examiners during the spring semester of their second year. They ideally should have all three lists drawn up and approved by the end of May of their second year, but no later than September 15 of their third year.

The basic academic work for the third year consists of preparation for the PhD Orals. The Oral examination takes two hours.  It consists of a one-hour major field and two half-hour minor field examinations, each generally with one faculty examiner, although students can arrange to have two faculty examiners for their major field when a single examiner does not suffice to cover the material.  The major field must include a reading list of at least 40 books (or the equivalent), selected in consultation with the major field examiner(s). The major field should provide the broad context for the eventual dissertation, while also preparing the student for the job market and to teach an introductory lecture course. Some students choose a major field with a comparative focus, while others choose a major field devoted to a single literature. The two minor fields each involve a reading list of about 20 books or their equivalent. One minor field can be geared directly to the likely dissertation topic (in which case the minor field should not duplicate the issues raised in the major field); the other minor field may 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.  Together, the three fields must include at least 10 books in at least three languages (i.e., 10 books in a first language, 10 books in a second language, and 10 books in a third language across the three lists). 


Dissertation Prospectus

Following the successful completion of PhD Orals, students write a dissertation prospectus of ten to twelve pages (plus bibliography). The prospectus should be completed no later than November 1 of the fourth year, at which point the department office will schedule a prospectus conference, to be held in mid- to late-November of the fourth year. The prospectus conference is a meeting between students and their dissertation committee, which must consist of a principal dissertation adviser (PDA) and two or three additional committee members. Ordinarily, at least one of the three or four committee members must be a faculty member of the Comparative Literature department; per GSAS rules, at least two of the committee members must be on FAS faculty.

During the prospectus conference the committee discusses with the student the reading the student has undertaken in preparation for work on the dissertation. But the focus of the conference is a detailed examination 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 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 the three readers of the dissertation.

After the prospectus conference, the prospectus, revised if necessary, is circulated to the full faculty of the department. Unless the committee asks for major revisions, the prospectus is discussed and voted on at the department meeting following the prospectus conference (usually in December of the student’s fourth year but earlier for prospectuses completed before then. Where appropriate, a student’s PDA 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 dissertation committee to reconfirm their approval.

Writing and Submitting the Dissertation

Per GSAS rules, to remain in good standing students are required to submit to their dissertation committee at least one complete dissertation chapter each year; the department also requires that students have at least one chapter meeting per year.  These meetings, which bring together students and their committee members, are scheduled by the department at the time a draft is circulated and generally are held within two to three weeks. When substantial revisions are requested, committee members provide timely written comments, although 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 before the Registrar’s deadline for submitting dissertations for a particular degree cycle. This deadline allows committee members to prepare for the dissertation defense.

A final two-hour oral defense is scheduled upon completion of the dissertation.  The defense is conducted by the dissertation committee and open to students and faculty members.  It is held at least two weeks before the Registrar’s deadline for submitting dissertations in a given degree cycle, allowing students time to make any needed revisions.



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 PhD, 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, individuals 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.


An ability to work in literatures in at least three languages is required. Normally this is demonstrated by coursework in which at least some of the primary readings are in the language. In certain circumstances the DGS may waive the requirement that competence in a language be demonstrated by coursework and instead permit the student to substitute a translation exam. If English is used as one of the languages, the other two languages should show some breadth; that is, they cannot 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 may legitimately count for the set of three languages is at the discretion of the DGS.


1. Four courses in Comparative Literature, 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 are met by either 200-level seminars in Comparative Literature or 100-level Comparative Literature courses, which normally count for graduate credit in the department.

2. Successful completion of a Second-Year Paper of 25-30 pages (7,500-9,000) on a comparative topic.  Students doing a secondary field in Comparative Literature do not need to submit the Second-Year Paper by beginning of the G3 year, but they are encouraged to submit this paper as soon thereafter as possible.


Further Information

Further information regarding courses and programs of study in comparative literature may be found on the department’s website, especially in the department’s Guide for Graduate Students, or, after consulting these sources, by contacting the department’s Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Karen Thornber (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Applications for admission and grants-in-aid, together with information regarding admission procedures, may be found on the Admissions Office webpage at, 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. Harvard requires online submission of the application.  Please note: Applicants for the PhD in Comparative Literature must submit a writing sample—a paper or scholarly work—in English.

Faculty of the Department of Comparative Literature