The Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) culminates in a thesis within your 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 field 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

Before you begin the thesis proposal you must have:

  • Been admitted as a degree candidate in the program.
  • Successfully completed at least six courses toward your current degree requirements.
  • Fulfilled the statistics requirement if you are concentrating in biology, government, international relations, general psychology, or clinical psychology.

To begin the process consult a research advisor and gain 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  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 five research advisors in the 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.

They also 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

  • Foreign literature, language, and culture
  • Middle Eastern studies
  • Religion
  • Visual arts
  • Retired concentrations: Celtic languages and literatures, classical civilizations, French language and literature, history of art and architecture, linguistics, medieval studies, and 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 especially essential if you are on financial aid.

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.

Upcoming humanities thesis writers’ group meetings:

  • July 16, 2014, room 221 (CANCELED)

All meetings will occur from 5:30 to 7 pm, and no RSVP is necessary.

Please contact your research advisor for more details.

Meeting for our social science proposal and thesis writers’ discussion group will be announced soon. 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)