The Department of Linguistics is home to one of the oldest and most distinguished linguistics programs in the United States. The study of linguistics at Harvard draws much of its strength from the unique range and depth of the University's offerings in related fields, especially ancient and modern languages. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the full spectrum of Harvard's resources in planning their schedules; they are also free to cross-register for linguistics and linguistics-related courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While all PhD candidates are expected to acquire a solid background in contemporary linguistic theory, the department places great emphasis on the inseparability of good theoretical work and detailed empirical research, and on the interrelatedness of diachronic and synchronic approaches to the study of linguistic phenomena.

Since the department is relatively small, discussion among faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates is ongoing and informal. Special workshops funded by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, together with frequent departmentally sponsored lectures and seminars, bring an unusually large number of outside speakers to Harvard every year. Widener Library contains a matchless linguistic and philological collection, supplemented by a special non-circulating collection accessible only to linguistics students and faculty.

Further information regarding departmental courses, faculty, and facilities can be obtained from the Department of Linguistics, Boylston Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138 (telephone: 617-495-4054; fax: 617-496-4447), or by visiting the departmental Website.

Admission and Financial Aid

Requirements for admission are flexible. Preference is normally given to candidates with a previous background in linguistics, but students with a mature interest in the field and a strong language background are encouraged to apply as well. GRE scores are required of all applicants, and are valid if taken within the last 5 years.

All new graduate students in Linguistics receive a five-year support package, either from GSAS, or from an outside funding source (e.g., the National Science Foundation), or from a combination of the two. The standard GSAS package provides sufficient funds to make teaching unnecessary in the first and second years. Support in the third and fourth years takes the form of teaching fellowships. The department regards teaching as an essential part of the Ph.D. program. Courses open to participation by teaching fellows include undergraduate tutorials, beginning-level linguistic theory courses, and large-enrollment undergraduate courses. Full support is again provided in the dissertation-completion year, freeing the student of teaching obligations. Stipends are provided for summer research in the first two years.

Inquiries regarding admission and financial aid should be directed 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 require online submission of the application.

The Structure of the Program

Course Requirements

In addition to advanced coursework in the areas of their major and minor fields, all students must complete the following foundational courses, normally in their first two years:

  • Linguistics 112/212: Syntactic Theory I/Syntactic Theory II
  • Linguistics 115/215: Phonological Theory I/Phonological Theory II
  • Linguistics 116/216: Semantic Theory I/Semantic Theory II
  • Linguistics 117r: Linguistic Field Methods
  • Linguistics 118: Historical and Comparative Linguistics (formerly Linguistics 224)

Second- and third-year students also take Linguistics 241r: Practicum in Linguistics. Linguistics 216 is not required of students concentrating in a language-intensive area of historical linguistics.

Language Requirement

The departmental language requirement has two components:

  • Reading knowledge of two languages of scholarship other than English. Native speakers of qualifying languages may count their native language for this purpose. Non-native speakers may satisfy the requirement by completing a second-year language course at the university level, or by passing a one-hour departmental reading exam (dictionary permitted).
  • Knowledge of the structure of a non-Indo-European language. This requirement may be met by taking a “structure” course (e.g., Linguistics 171 (Structure of Chinese)), a course in linguistic typology, or a second term of Linguistics 117r (Linguistic Field Methods). Practical reading and/or speaking knowledge cannot be used to satisfy this requirement.

Major and Minor Fields

Students choose a major and a minor field during their first year. The major field is typically a large subarea of linguistics, such as phonology, syntax, semantics, or Indo-European.  The minor field may either be another major subarea or a more specific one (e.g., Germanic syntax, psycholinguistics, Greek historical grammar). Competence in the major field is demonstrated by appropriate advanced coursework and a generals paper; in certain fields a special written examination may be added. Competence in the minor field is demonstrated by satisfactory performance in three courses above the introductory level, or two courses if one of the generals papers is in the area of the minor field.

Satisfactory Progress

A B+ average must be maintained in each year of graduate study. Grades below B- cannot be counted toward departmental requirements; two grades below B- in required courses will result in termination of candidacy. Ordinarily, a grade of Incomplete can only be converted into a letter grade if the work is made up before the end of the following term. No grade of Incomplete can be used to satisfy a departmental requirement.
All requirements, including the generals papers, should ideally be completed by the end of the third year, but in no case later than the end of the fourth. The dissertation prospectus is due by February of the fourth year. Failure to meet program requirements in a timely fashion will result in loss of good standing and possible requirement to withdraw. 

Generals Papers

In lieu of a formal admission to candidacy examination (“general exam”), PhD students are required to submit and orally defend two research papers of publishable quality. The first generals paper should ideally be submitted by the end of the second year, and the second by the end of the third year. One of the two papers should be in the area of the declared major field; the other should be in a different area of linguistics, which may, but need not be, the same as the minor field. If the second paper is in the area of the minor field, it may count in place of a third course in the minor field (see section on major and minor fields).

Master of Arts (AM)

Graduate students who have completed two years of residence and who have fulfilled all the course requirements and language requirements for the Ph.D. are eligible to petition for a Master’s (AM) degree. One Generals paper must be defended to receive the A.M. degree. 
Note:  Students are not admitted to the department to pursue a terminal AM degree.


First-year students are advised by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) until they choose a major field and select a major advisor from the regular departmental faculty. Thereafter, progress toward completion of the Ph.D. requirements continues to be monitored by the DGS, but primary responsibility for overseeing study shifts to the major advisor. Students are free to change their major advisor at any time. By the end of the second year they should also select a co-advisor, who serves as a second advisor and faculty mentor.

The Dissertation

  • Prospectus. A dissertation prospectus must be submitted to the department by the end of the fourth year. The prospectus should contain a summary (in approximately ten pages) of the goals and methodology of the dissertation research, a bibliography of relevant literature, and a schedule for progress toward completion.
  • Committee. As part of the prospectus submission procedure, students nominate a three-person committee to serve as readers of the completed dissertation. Two of the three committee members must be regular faculty members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Final membership of the dissertation committee is subject to departmental approval. The head of the committee, if not already the major advisor, assumes this role as soon as the prospectus is approved. Students are expected to maintain regular communication with all three members of their committee during the dissertation-writing process.
  • Defense. Acceptance of a PhD dissertation requires a successful public defense. The defense must be scheduled sufficiently in advance of the Registrar’s deadline to allow time for corrections and revisions and to have the dissertation bound.

Please see the description of secondary fields in Historical Linguistics and Linguistic Theory at the end of Chapter VI.

Faculty of the Department of Linguistics