The Thesis Process
The thesis is an opportunity to work independently on a research project of your own design.
Through coursework and background research, you will develop a question that has yet to be answered by prior research. You work with a research advisor to fine-tune your question and hypothesis. Then you work with a faculty or industry expert who will act as your thesis director on the project.
You emerge from the thesis process with a solid understanding of how original research is executed and how to best communicate research results. Many students have gone on to publish their research in peer-reviewed and professional journals.
There are six steps to follow for thesis preparation, registration, and completion, which we have outlined below.
1. Determine Your Thesis Topic and Tentative Question
Before completing 32 credits, you work one on one with your research advisor to narrow down your academic interests to a relevant and manageable thesis topic, including a tentative (and answerable) thesis question.
Before scheduling your initial research advising appointment, review the Guide to the ALM Thesis website.
Every effort is made to support your research interests, but faculty guidance is not available for all possible projects. Therefore, revision or a change of thesis topic may be necessary. This is particularly pertinent to scientific research that can be dependent upon laboratory space, project funding, and access to private databases.
2. Register for Crafting the Thesis Proposal
After your thesis topic has been approved by your research advisor and you've completed a minimum 32 credits in good standing, you register for Crafting the Thesis Proposal tutorial or course.
The goal of the thesis proposal course or tutorial is to produce a nearly complete, academically strong thesis proposal that sets the foundation for a high-quality thesis. The proposal is about 15 to 20 pages.
The typical proposal structure is:
- Tentative title
- Research problem
- Definition of terms
- Background of the problem
- Research methods
- Research limitations
- Tentative work schedule
- Working bibliography
There are variations based on field. Review the ALM Thesis Guide website for information about the thesis proposal process.
During the thesis proposal course or tutorial, it is critical that you work diligently with your research advisor or instructor. You are required to incorporate the feedback given and be fully committed to producing an academically strong proposal leading to a thesis worthy of a Harvard degree. If you fail to take feedback, follow directions, or produce an acceptable proposal, you will not pass the course, and you'll have just one more attempt to complete the course or tutorial before being required to withdraw from the program.
If your thesis, regardless of field (English literature or psychology), will involve the use of human subjects (e.g., interviews, surveys, observations), you are required to have your research vetted by the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects (CUHS) of Harvard University. Please download and review the submission guide while you are in the proposal writing stage. Your research advisor can answer any questions.
3. Register for Master’s Thesis Part One
Once you successfully complete Crafting the Thesis Proposal, you will be automatically registered for Master’s Thesis Part One the following term.
During this course, you’ll continue to refine your thesis proposal and your research advisor will locate a suitable thesis director. At this stage, the potential thesis director may request changes to the thesis proposal to more closely align with his or her research interest and expertise or to better reflect the current state of research on your topic.
The research advisor is responsible for placing you with a thesis director. You are not permitted to approach faculty about directing your thesis without an approved research thesis proposal and permission from your research advisor. Failure to follow this guideline could result in disciplinary action.
Thesis research is a nine-month, eight-credit project, which requires a two-step registration. Some students may progress through the Master’s Thesis Part One step at a faster rate than others depending upon the readiness of the thesis proposal and thesis director availability. Ordinarily all students are required to register for both steps to obtain the full eight credits for the thesis. Occasionally candidates may have a 100% complete proposal and an assigned thesis director upon completion of Crafting the Thesis Proposal. If so, they can register for an eight-credit version of the Master's Thesis in one registration step.
4. Register for Master’s Thesis Part Two
When a director is found and the thesis proposal is fully vetted, you’ll receive a letter of authorization from the dean of academic programs officially approving your thesis work and providing you with instructions on how to register for Master’s Thesis Part Two.
The letter of authorization will also have a thesis due date (nine months from when your director was assigned), and a graduation date (see timetable below).
During this stage you are working in a consistent, regular manner to complete the research by your required nine-month timeline, which may take you beyond the ordinary semester schedule.
You will always have the full nine months to complete your thesis, and if necessary, you may request a three-month extension. Three-month extensions are only approved if you've been making diligent academic progress on your research and the thesis director agrees that he or she can continue to work beyond the mandatory timeframe.
You can't register for Master’s Thesis Part Two until the Master's Thesis Part One course is paid in full, and failure to register for Master's Thesis Two will result in an automatic Thesis Not Complete (TNC) grade for part one. TNC grades may count as failing grades if you've already earned two withdrawal grades.
There are many variables to thesis completion, including the time and effort that you put toward thesis proposal creation as well as thesis director availability. You should be prepared for the entire process, from registering for Crafting the Thesis Proposal to submission of the final draft of your thesis, to take 15-18 months. Six to nine months for proposal writing and director assignment, then nine months to write the thesis.
Specifically, you need to be registered for Master's Thesis Part Two* no later than:
- December 1 to be a November graduate (final draft of the thesis due September 1).
- April 1 to be a March graduate (final draft of the thesis due January 1).
- June 1 to be a May graduate (final draft of the thesis due March 1).
*For current degree candidates, these dates apply to your master's thesis registration.
5. Conduct the Thesis Research
You have nine months to complete the thesis. The thesis is ordinarily organized around chapters that include the following information:
- Research Methods and Limitations
There are usually at least 50 pages of text (not including front matter and any appendices). Chapter topics vary by field. The Guide to the ALM Thesis website has examples of thesis projects from most fields. Most important the Guide has the required ALM Thesis Template that includes all the mandatory thesis formatting. You must use this preprogrammed form to ensure that your submitted thesis meets the required style guidelines for margins, font, title page, table of contents, chapter heading, etc.
6. Submit the Complete Thesis
Once the thesis is complete and ready for final review, you upload a PDF version of your completed thesis project on to Harvard University’s electronic thesis and dissertation submission system (ETDs).
Once uploaded, your research advisor and thesis director will review the document via this online form and offer final edit suggestions. Both your thesis director and the research advisor need to sign off on the thesis. Late-term revisions by your thesis director or research advisor may be necessary to ensure high academic standards, which may postpone your graduation. The focus must be on the quality of the product, not the graduation date.
Once final—required grade earned and all edits complete--you upload your thesis one last time to ETDs. The thesis project will be sent to several downstream systems:
- Your work will be preserved and shared using Harvard’s digital repository DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard).
- Metadata about your work will be sent to HOLLIS (the Harvard Library catalog).
- Your work will be preserved in Harvard Library’s DRS2 (digital preservation repository).
By submitting work through ETDs @ Harvard you will be signing the Harvard Author Agreement, which grants the University a non-exclusive license to preserve, reproduce, and display the work. This license does not constrain your rights to publish your work subsequently. You retain all intellectual property rights. Please review the Harvard Author Agreement for full information.
For more information on Harvard's open access initiatives, we recommend you view the Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC), Peter Suber’s brief introduction.
Your thesis director is responsible for determining the grade of your submitted work. You are allowed just one attempt per thesis registration to complete the thesis with a passing grade of B– or higher. If you fail to complete substantial work for the thesis, you will earn a grade of TNC (thesis not complete). If you have already earned two withdrawal grades, the TNC grade will count as zero in your cumulative GPA.
If you earn a TNC or grade below a B– on work submitted, you can petition the Administrative Board for permission to enroll in the thesis for one final time. If approved, you may be required to develop a new proposal on a different topic and you will be assigned a different thesis director.
The Board only reviews cases in which extenuating circumstances prevented the successful completion of the thesis.
Annual Thesis Symposium
You may be invited to present your research at the annual thesis symposium held in late May. Details about presentation invitations will be sent to you during your graduation year.