The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) offers a number of distinct graduate programs in different fields of study, all of which are concerned in some way with the peoples and civilizations of the Near East. There have been significant changes to the structure of the NELC program offerings. Applicants are encouraged to visit the NELC Website for updated information as it becomes available.


Harvard’s library resources in the various fields of Near Eastern Studies are virtually unparalleled. Widener Library, for example, has vast holdings in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and Yiddish literature. The reading rooms of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Andover-Harvard Theological Library of the Harvard Divinity School also have excellent resources available to students. Also at the Divinity School is the Center for the Study of World Religions.

Students wishing to specialize in modern Near Eastern political or social studies should familiarize themselves with the resources and personnel of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, as well as the Islamic Legal Studies Program at the Harvard Law School. Those interested in Jewish studies should become familiar with the resources and personnel of the Center for Jewish Studies.

The Harvard Semitic Museum, in which the department is housed, has a superb collection of ancient and medieval artifacts representing many of the cultures of the Near East. As a University teaching museum, the Semitic Museum is committed to providing access to these materials for study and teaching. For students interested in Biblical or other ancient Near Eastern studies, or in the archaeology of the Near East, a variety of opportunities for archaeological work in the Middle East are available, including the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

NELC offers many resources in addition to those listed above. For further details, please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit NELC online.

Fields of Study

The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) offers PhD and AM degrees in three distinct fields:

  1. Ancient Near Eastern Studies, whose subfields include:
    1. Akkadian and Sumerian Studies
    2. Archaeology of the Levant
    3. Armenian Studies
    4. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
    5. Egyptology
  2. Jewish History and Culture, whose subfields include:
    1. the Hebrew Bible in its Jewish Interpretive Context
    2. Jewish History and Culture of Antiquity
    3. Medieval Jewish History and Culture
    4. Modern Jewish History and Culture
    5. Modern Jewish Literatures
  3. Histories and Cultures of Muslim Societies, whose sub-fields include:
    1. Arabic language and literature
    2. Islamic religion and culture
    3. Islamic intellectual history (especially philosophy and theology)
    4. Islamic institutional history
    5. Islamic law
    6. Modern Arabic literature and culture
    7. Indo-Muslim Culture: The Study of Muslim Societies in South Asia
    8. Islam in Africa


In addition, students may apply for a fourth comparative or diachronic field that will draw on the strengths of the faculty across the boundaries presupposed by the fields outlined above. Examples might include comparative Semitic linguistics; Jewish and Islamic law or scriptural interpretation; the intersection of Jewish and/or Arabic cultures with the Iranian/Zoroastrian world.

General Rules

In addition to the specific requirements of each program, there are general rules governing all masters and doctoral programs within the department. These are summarized below. Please note: An expanded list of departmental requirements is contained in the GSAS Handbook. All students in the department are responsible for meeting the requirements as put forth here and in the GSAS Handbook.

Advising — All incoming NELC graduate students are assigned a committee, composed of three faculty members, to help orient them to the department and to Harvard. Students will meet with the committee during their orientation to NELC and throughout the first year as needed. In their consultations with these faculty members, students have a right to expect assistance in planning their course of study and in developing an awareness of the overall structure of their program. At the beginning of each semester, students and advisors should agree on meeting times allowing the students regularly to bring their concerns and questions before their advisors and the advisors to monitor the student’s progress.

Master of Arts (AM)

The AM degree is a terminal degree.

Prerequisites for Admission — The bachelor’s degree (AB). Before seeking admission to the department, applicants will normally have attained a basic knowledge of a Near Eastern language central to their field of concentration. In addition, advanced reading knowledge of French or German is normally required before admission. GRE is required.

Residence — There is a minimum residence requirement of one year. The AM degree is designed to be completed in one year. However, students may elect to complete the degree over two years. The student’s advisor must submit a letter of explanation to the department should the student require more than two years to complete the AM degree.

Program of Study — The advising committee must approve the student’s program of study at the time of registration. One of the members of the department will act as primary advisor. The AM degree is awarded upon completion with passing grade (B or above) of at least eight and no more than twelve half-courses, of which at least two must be seminars or their equivalents, and upon completion of any additional requirements of the individual program.

General Field Requirements — Each field of study has particular course requirements. These are specified in the field’s written program description, both basic requirements and optional requirements for various directions within the field. Students are expected to consult with the advisor(s) in their fields concerning these ­requirements.

Languages of Modern Scholarship — ­Advanced reading knowledge of either French or German is ordinarily required before admission. The student will be tested on that language at the beginning of the first semester. If the competence level is insufficient, the student is expected to pass the departmental French/German exam at the end of the first ­semester. In some fields, knowledge of an additional language may be required. The level of competence in the second language will be determined by the student’s advisor(s).

Satisfactory Progress — At the end of every fall term, the faculty discusses the progress of each student; if there are problems, a letter is sent to the student at that time. At the end of every spring semester, the faculty again reviews the progress of each graduate student and, in accordance with Graduate School policy, assigns a status of "satisfactory," "grace," or "unsatisfactory." The terms "grace" and "unsatisfactory" are defined in the GSAS Handbook.

Thesis — Students will submit an AM paper, the subject and scope of which will be determined in consultation with their advisor.

Financial Aid — The department does not provide tuition fellowships for terminal AM candidates; therefore, candidates must be self-supporting or must seek funding from outside sources.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The NELC Department reserves the right to alter all guidelines and information listed below. Please see the NELC website for the most current program requirements.

The purpose of the degree is to certify that the student has become proficient in the study of Near Eastern languages and civilizations and has proved able to carry on independent research in a chosen field of investigation. The requirements for this degree are as follows.

Prerequisites for Admission — The AM ­degree (see above), or an equivalent level of competence, is desirable. Before seeking admission to the department, applicants will normally have attained an ability to read and comprehend sources in the Near Eastern language central to their field of concentration. GRE is required. In addition, advanced reading knowledge of French or German is normally required before admission to a doctoral program; the student will be tested prior to the first week of classes in the first term.

The First Two Years

Courses: PhD candidates are required to complete a minimum of sixteen half-courses or the equivalent. Particular requirements of certain fields of study may require additional coursework.

Incompletes: It is the rule of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations that no graduate student shall be permitted more than one grade of Incomplete per term (exceptions granted only in extreme cases). The student must complete the work of the course for which an Incomplete was granted within the following term and a letter grade will be recorded. Otherwise the Incomplete will stand in the student’s permanent record. No more than two permanent Incompletes will be permitted, nor will any permanent Incomplete be allowed for a required course. If a student accumulates more than two permanent Incompletes, the student will be required to withdraw, unless the faculty determines by a two-thirds majority vote that extraordinary circumstances warrant an extension, which shall in no case exceed one term.

GSAS Requirements: In addition to departmental requirements, students are responsible for meeting the ‘Common Requirements’ set forth in Chapter 3 of the GSAS Handbook. The following schedule for satisfactory progress is based on a timeline that leads up to dissertation completion no later than G-7, which will enable students who entered in 2005 or later to qualify for the Dissertation Completion Grant described below.

General Field Requirements: The departmental fields, and often their sub-fields, each have particular course requirements. These are specified in the field’s written program description, both basic requirements and optional requirements for various directions within the field. Students are expected to consult with the ­advisor(s) in their fields concerning these requirements.

Language Study Requirements: Students are expected to consult with their advisors concerning the corpus of texts required and the scope of the examinations; the advisors are expected to provide the students with clear and comprehensive information.

The major language of the student’s field of research is normally one of the fields of the general examinations.

In addition, all students are expected to have or acquire knowledge of a second departmental language. The minimum level of competence expected in this requirement is a grade of B in the final examination of a second-year course in the language.

Instead of such language coursework, a student may demonstrate the equivalent level of competence in a required language by taking a special examination administered by a member of the faculty.

If a second departmental language is included in the general examinations, the level of competence will be significantly greater than that ­required in a second-year language course examination.

Languages of modern scholarship: Each student must demonstrate reading proficiency in two modern languages of secondary scholarship (other than English) of direct relevance to their proposed subject of study. One of these languages must be either French or German. The second of these languages will be determined by the student’s adviser in view of the student’s proposed subject of study and the guidelines set out by the NELC sub-field. The student must demonstrate reading proficiency in one modern language by the beginning of the Fall semester of the second year of study. Students who have failed to do so will be placed into unsatisfactory status.

The student must demonstrate reading proficiency in the second modern language by the beginning of the Fall semester of the third year of study. Students who have failed to do so will be placed into unsatisfactory status. Students will not be permitted to take General Examinations until six months after fulfilling the modern language requirements, so that they may credibly include articles and books in the research languages on their bibliographies. Applications to the PhD will be reviewed with this requirement in mind.

Advisors must assist their advisees in acquiring the needed proficiency, which, inter alia, will mean building language training into the planning of student programs in the first two years.

Where necessary (as determined by the advisor) students will be advised to take three graduate level courses in one or both semesters of the first year, freeing up space to take a course or two in the required modern language. In addition, it will be the responsibility of advisors to work with their advisees to identify the best summer language program in the required language. Students will be expected to make use of the summer grants they receive as part of their funding package to attend such programs. Advisors will be expected to strongly encourage their (prospective) advisees to begin their language work before they arrive, either in the summer after they are admitted, or even earlier, where practicable.

Note: Courses in the languages of modern scholarship do not count toward the required sixteen half-courses or the equivalent (see above).

Satisfactory Progress: A prospective third-year student must have achieved a minimum grade point average of "B" up to that point. At the end of every fall term, the faculty discusses the progress of each student; if there are problems, a letter is sent to the student at that time. At the end of every spring semester, the faculty again reviews the progress of each graduate student and, in accordance with graduate school policy, assigns a status of "satisfactory," "grace," or "unsatisfactory." The terms "grace" and "unsatisfactory" are defined in the GSAS Handbook.

Year Three

Teaching: Students are expected to teach in the third and fourth years of the program. Teaching is not required during the first two years of study. Only under the most unusual circumstances is a student allowed to teach before the third year of study.

As noted in the acceptance letters NELC students receive, students are expected to earn their stipends in the form of teaching fellowships in their third and fourth years. These fellowships begin in the fall term of the third year and extend through the spring term of the fourth year at a rate of two sections (2/5) per term. The department will assist the student in securing teaching fellowships, but students are required to make every effort to find suitable teaching arrangements, whether in NELC or in other departments or programs. Priority for teaching fellow positions in NELC is given to students in their third and fourth years of graduate study.

Additional resources for teaching fellows may be found at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

General and Special Examinations: By the end of the third year a student must have passed the general examinations and by the end of the fall term of the fourth year, a student must have passed the special examinations. Special exams relate to the student’s particular area of study, and may involve work leading to the generation of a dissertation prospectus. The General Examinations are written and will consist of two areas: (a) one broad exam, the first part of which will be common to all enrolled in that field, with a second part whose focus will be determined by the student and his/her advisors (b) that field’s major language(s); the Special Examinations will also be written and will also consist of two areas related to the student’s field of expertise, although the exact configuration of these exams should be determined by the student’s advisory committee in consultation with the student. One of the Special Exams may involve a related field or discipline outside of NELC; Linguistics, Anthropology, History, inter alia, are all common areas of study for students in NELC.

The student’s advisors are expected to assist the student in preparing for the General and Special Examinations by defining as closely as is deemed useful the scope of the examinations and indicating the literature the students are expected to have read and the degree of familiarity with this literature that is expected.

The two written General Examinations may be followed by an optional oral review covering the same material as the written examinations. The two Special Examinations will be followed by a mandatory oral review of the same material covered in the examinations. Each set of exams (the generals and the specials) will be administered over a two-week period.

If requested by a student, take-home examinations may be substituted at the discretion of the student’s advising committee.

If a student fails any part of the General or Special Examinations, permission to repeat all or parts of them is not automatically granted, but is considered in each individual case by the examining committee.

If permission to repeat the examinations is not granted, the student will be offered the possibility of taking an A.M., if the appropriate conditions are met.

Each field in the department determines its own timing of general and special examinations, in consultation with the department’s administration. Specifically, each field chooses between a floating General and Special Examination schedule (individual students will be examined when they are deemed prepared for the examinations) and a fixed schedule (students will be examined during one of two set times during the academic year—November or May). Students whose field uses the fixed schedule may take their examinations only on the two assigned dates.

Year Four

Within one year after the successful completion of the general examinations—normally by the end of the fourth year—a student must have obtained approval of a dissertation prospectus in order to show satisfactory progress. Exceptions to this rule require a petition well before the expected submission of the prospectus.

Dissertation Prospectus: After the successful completion of the general examinations, and usually during preparation for the Special Examinations, students will consult with their advisors to choose a topic for their dissertation and a prospectus committee of at least three faculty members, two of whom must be from Harvard.

During the writing of the prospectus, students and advisors are expected to interact closely; the advisors are expected to guide the students with respect to planning and bibliographical research. Often, the principal advisor is the one most closely involved in the early stages and will decide when a draft should be submitted to the other members of the committee. The advice of the members of the committee normally results in the need for several drafts of the prospectus over a number of weeks.

When the prospectus is approved by the entire prospectus committee, it will be submitted to the faculty of the department for comments before being presented by the committee at a department meeting. The student is responsible for distributing copies of the prospectus to all regular members of the department at least one week before the meeting at which the prospectus is to be considered (a tentative schedule of department meetings is circulated each September, and the student coordinator has the list of regular department faculty). The copying of the prospectus and the cost of the copying are also the student’s responsibility.

Acceptance of the prospectus then requires a majority vote of the members present. Not infrequently, a prospectus is not accepted in its present form and is then sent back with the department’s comments (before or after the department meeting) for further revisions. Sometimes the department accepts the prospectus contingent upon specific changes being made.

Form of the Prospectus: The prospectus should include a title page listing the name of the members of the prospectus committee, specifying the principal advisor. The prospectus should conform (as later also the dissertation) to the standards in scholarly writing within the field in terms of style, including transliteration, transcription, and translation of ancient languages and the form of footnotes, references, and bibliographies.

Contents of the Prospectus: The prospectus is expected to contain the following information about the projected dissertation:

  1. The nature of the problem that the student intends to study.
  2. Its importance to the overall field of study in which the student is working.
  3. A broad review of scholarship on the question being examined, such as:
    1. Which (principal) scholars have dealt with this or similar issues?
    2. What, in the student’s opinion, remains to be done (i.e., why the student is writing this particular dissertation)?
  4. A discussion of the methodologies the student will use to tackle the problem (i.e., how does the student intend to argue the point?).
  5. An outline of each of the chapters; if there are foreseeable difficulties in gathering the material necessary, this should also be noted.
  6. A schedule of approximate dates for submission of first drafts of each chapter.
  7. A select and relevant bibliography.
  8. Tablet samples should be included with prospectus submissions where applicable.


The length of the prospectus should not exceed approximately 3,000 words (for text, footnotes, and schedule inclusive; brief bibliography not inclusive).

Year Five and Beyond

Dissertation Progress: After the Acceptance of the Prospectus, if so desired and accepted by the department, non-Harvard members (usually not more than one) may be included on the Dissertation Committee as secondary advisors.

While the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences requires a student to complete the PhD program within ten years of entering the program, the target for all students is completion within seven years, and under current rules no Harvard funding will be available to students beyond the seventh year. Beyond these requirements, the faculty is the final arbiter of what constitutes satisfactory progress. In order to make satisfactory progress on the dissertation, the student must submit and have approved at least one chapter of the dissertation by the end of the first year after the approval of the prospectus (ordinarily by the end of the 5th year).

Dissertation Completion Grant: Beginning with the cohort entering in 2005–06, students are guaranteed five years of funding: the first four years plus a Dissertation Completion Grant awarded to qualified PhD candidates. This grant will be available as early as G-4 and as late as G-7. After G-7, the grant is no longer guaranteed. The deadline for applying for this grant will be early in the preceding spring term. In order to be eligible, the student must have two advanced draft chapters of the dissertation approved by the time of application.

G-10 Enrollment Cap: Students still in the program in the tenth year should plan to finish that year or else withdraw from the program. They may reapply for admission when they have completed their dissertations.

Only in extraordinary extenuating circumstances, and only if there is demonstrable evidence that the dissertation will be completed, will the department support an application through the Dean’s office for a one-year grace period. Students who fail to complete the dissertation will be required to withdraw from the Graduate Program. They may then also reapply for admission when they have completed their dissertations.

Dissertation Defense: Following are the rules for completing the PhD program:

When the dissertation is complete, it is to be read by a jury of at least three readers, two of whom must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Copies are to be submitted to each of the readers, as well as one to the department, at least two months before the date on which the degree is to be awarded and at least one month before the date of the dissertation defense.

The student will be asked to defend the dissertation orally after it has been read, at least one month before the degree is to be awarded.

The date and time of the dissertation defense will be announced in writing to the entire faculty of the department and all will be invited to attend.

The student may then be required to revise parts of the dissertation according to comments made by the advisors, occasionally also other faculty, before submitting a final version.

The student is responsible for having spiral-bound (or hard-bound if the student desires) copies of the final dissertation made. One copy should be deposited with the department, to be placed in the departmental library, and one with the Registrar.

Students are solely responsible for meeting all GSAS degree application deadlines and for submitting their final dissertations. Schedules (as well as advice) are available in the NELC office and the Registrar’s office (20 Garden Street, room 109).


Admissions and financial aid information is available from 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. See the GSAS Admissions website.