Thesis overview

The ALM culminates in a thesis within the field of concentration. In the thesis, you demonstrate familiarity with the contents and methods of a given discipline, engaging in the collection and interpretation of original data and a scholarly critique of others’ work.

The ALM thesis is a research-based requirement for all fields of concentration (except literature and creative writing), including visual and dramatic arts. Portfolios of original creative work—such as photographs, paintings, or set designs—are not acceptable. Work completed or published elsewhere is likewise not acceptable.

Thesis director

The thesis must be undertaken with a faculty member holding a teaching appointment in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the rank of senior lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor, or an appropriate teaching appointment in another Harvard school, such as the Law School, Graduate School of Education, or Medical School.

Completion policies

The time allowed for writing the thesis is nine months. Should you receive an INC or a grade below B− on the thesis, the research advisor in consultation with the ALM research committee will determine whether you must develop a new proposal on a different topic, or whether you may register again for the thesis and maintain the original topic. You will have only one other opportunity to complete the thesis with a grade of B− or better. Failure to complete the thesis on the second attempt will result in permanent retirement from the ALM program. If you fall into poor academic standing as the result of a non-passing thesis grade, you will also be permanently retired from the program.

The thesis proposal

You may not begin the thesis process until you have become an ALM candidate and have successfully completed at least six ALM courses towards your current degree requirements. If you concentrate in biology, government, international relations, general psychology, or clinical psychology, you cannot submit a thesis proposal until you have completed the required graduate-level course in statistics with a grade of B or better.

Do not begin a thesis proposal without first consulting an ALM research advisor and gaining approval for the topic. Faculty guidance is not available for all possible thesis topics; therefore, revisions or even a change of topic may be necessary.

Typically, it takes a minimum of six months and several drafts to develop a thesis proposal. The turnaround time for each draft is approximately four to six weeks. If, after three attempts, you have made no substantial progress in developing an acceptable proposal, your work and relevant records are submitted to the ALM research committee to consider whether continuation in the program is appropriate.

For graduation in May, you should:

  • Begin research at least 15 months before this date.
  • Submit the revised final draft of the proposal no later than September 1.
  • Obtain approval of the proposal and the dean’s approval for working with a thesis director no later than October 1.

Candidates in biology are advised to begin this process three to six months earlier.

Copies of A Guide to the ALM Thesis (seventh edition), which you should consult before beginning this process, are available in the ALM office and may be downloaded below from the list of thesis resources.

Research advisors

There are four research advisors in the ALM program, all with experience in guiding students on the thesis. They advise candidates on all aspects of the development of the thesis topic and on the preparation and presentation of the thesis proposal, which is a prerequisite to writing the thesis. Furthermore, they help identify faculty whose research and teaching interests coincide with proposals on specific topics and who may be subsequently recruited to serve as thesis directors. Below are the advisors and the fields they advise.

Humanities, Dean Sue Weaver Schopf

Contact: (617) 495-9942, sue_schopf@harvard.edu

  • Celtic languages and literatures
  • Foreign literature, language, and culture
  • Linguistics
  • Medieval studies
  • Middle Eastern studies
  • Religion
  • Visual arts
  • Suspended concentrations: classical civilizations, French language and literature, history of art and architecture, Spanish language and literature, and studio arts and film.

Humanities, Dr. Talaya Delaney

Contact: (617) 998-8542, talaya_delaney@harvard.edu

  • English
  • Dramatic arts
  • Literature and creative writing

Biological sciences, Dr. James Morris

Contact: (617) 998-8549, james_morris@harvard.edu

  • Biology
  • History of science, technology, and medicine
  • Legal studies
  • Physical anthropology and archaeology

Behavioral sciences, Dr. Dante Spetter

Contact: (617) 496-4967, spetter@hudce.harvard.edu

  • Clinical psychology
  • Social and cultural anthropology and archaeology
  • Psychology

Social sciences, Dr. Donald Ostrowski

Contact: (617) 495-4547 or don@wjh.harvard.edu

  • Government
  • History
  • International relations

Certain interdisciplinary fields may be guided by any of these advisors, depending upon the area of emphasis.

Registering for the thesis

You may not register for the thesis until you have a proposal approved by your research advisor, a thesis director who has signed the approved-proposal form, and a letter from the dean stating that you may now register for the thesis. You must register by the date shown in the dean’s letter.

Registration for the thesis occurs throughout the year. If you are seeking financial aid, anticipate having your proposal approved in the fall, and will likely register for the thesis in the fall term, you must do so by November 30. For the spring term, register by April 26. If you register after the April deadline, you will be registered in the summer term and may pay a higher tuition.

If you are registered for the thesis, you are considered a full-time student, but you must complete a downloadable thesis continuation form each term.

This is essential for all candidates to remain enrolled in the thesis. Failure to submit the form each semester affects your registration status. (Note:  Forms submitted in the fall are not valid for the spring. Students must submit a new form every term, including the summer term.)

If you are on financial aid, you should pay particularly close attention to the deadline dates listed on the thesis continuation form, as the untimely submission of the proper paperwork will affect your funding.

Note: Your thesis enrollment is not tied to end of semester dates, nor to graduation dates, but rather to the time when you finish actively working on your thesis with your thesis director. 

Once you submit your final draft to your thesis director for grading—by January 15 for March graduation, for example—you are considered finished with your thesis for administrative purposes. This means you are not enrolled for the spring term (even if you submitted the thesis continuation form) because you finished your thesis before the term began. To be considered enrolled in a term, you must not only submit the form, but also be working with your thesis director for the majority of that term. 

For students relying on thesis enrollment status for financial aid purposes, it is particularly important to keep this in mind, as it affects your funding and possibly your repayment date.

Proposal and thesis writers discussion groups

Most of the research advisors host monthly discussion groups for ALM candidates who are working on a thesis proposal or thesis. We recommend that you attend at least one such meeting. Many find it useful to attend these discussions throughout the year. All meetings will be held at 51 Brattle Street. These are the dates for our spring humanities thesis writers’ group meetings:

  • Thursday March 27
  • Thursday, April 24
  • Thursday, June 19

All meetings will occur from 5:30 to 7:00 pm in Grossman Common Room on the second floor at 51 Brattle Street, and no RSVP is necessary in order to attend.

Please contact your research advisor for more details.

We have meetings from 5:30 p.m. to 7:15 pm on the following dates for our social science proposal and thesis writers’ discussion group:

  • Tuesday, March 11
  • Monday, April 7
  • Tuesday, May 6

The meetings will be in Grossman Common Room on the second floor at 51 Brattle Street.

Downloadable thesis resources

A Guide to the ALM Thesis (seventh edition)

Additional ALM thesis materials

Biological sciences (Area A)

Social sciences (Area B)

Humanities (Area C)