The Thesis Process
The thesis is an opportunity to work independently on a research project of your own design and contribute to the scholarly literature in your field. 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 academic or professional journals.
Through your ALM coursework, plus your own background research, you will identify a question that has yet to be sufficiently answered or thoroughly tested by prior research. You first work with a research advisor in a tutorial or course setting to craft a thesis proposal. Then, you work with a thesis director, either a faculty or industry expert, who will help you bring your research to successful conclusion and documentation.
Below are the several steps to follow to fulfill the thesis requirement. Please know that through each step, you will receive expert guidance and mentorship.
1. Determine Your Thesis Topic and Tentative Question
After completing 24 credits, but before completing 32, you work with your assigned research advisor to narrow down your academic interests to a relevant and manageable thesis topic. Log in to your student account, and schedule an appointment with your assigned research advisor via the Degree Candidate Portal.
Every effort is made to support your research interests that is grounded in your ALM course work, 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 is dependent upon laboratory space, project funding, and access to private databases.
This is also pertinent for our ALM, liberal arts fields candidates (English, government, history, international relations, psychology, etc.) who are required to have Harvard faculty direct their thesis projects. If you are pursuing a liberal arts field, review Harvard College's as well as all the graduate schools' course catalog online (my.harvard.edu) to be sure that there are faculty teaching courses related to your thesis topic. If not, you'll need to choose an alternative.
Thesis work represents thoughtful engagement in new academic scholarship. You cannot re-purpose prior research. If you want to draw or expand upon your own previous scholarship for a small portion of your thesis, you need to obtain the explicit permission of your research advisor and cite the work in both the proposal and thesis. Violations of this policy will be referred to the Administrative Board.
Advising tip: We've put together this one-page guide to help frame your thinking about topic selection.
2. Prepare CTP Prework
The next step in the process is to complete Crafting the Thesis Proposal (CTP) tutorial or course. The CTP provides an essential onramp to the thesis, mapping critical issues of research design (scope, relevance to the field, prior scholarly debate, methodology, and perhaps, metrics for evaluating impact as well as bench-marking). The CTP identifies and works through potential hurdles to successful thesis completion, allowing the thesis project to begin fully operational.
To be eligible for CTP registration, you need to be in good standing and have completed a minimum of 32 degree-applicable credits as well as the statistics/research methods requirement, if pertinent to your field.
You also need to submit CTP prework.
CTP prework guidelines are posted on the thesis website. Go to ALM Thesis Guide website, toolkit section, then, choose your field. CTP prework demonstrates that you have done enough prior reading and research on your topic to begin the thesis proposal process.
It is important to follow the CTP prework instructions explicitly, including page length (about two pages) and not attempt to do less or more than what is required. The CTP prework challenges you to be thoughtful, yet concise--a true hallmark of high-level graduate work. The CTP tutorial is strategically designed to build upon the CTP prework and guide you through the ALM program's specific proposal process by offering you critical learnings that are integral to a successful thesis director assignment, including adherence to human subjects approval guidelines and standard Harvard format requirements. There is no benefit to attempt to do more on your own.
On the rare occasion that a student presents work equivalent to an approved proposal during the CTP prework stage, or even at the start of the CTP tutorial, the student will be required to replace the CTP with a 4-credit elective to be completed with a grade of B- or higher in order to graduate with the mandatory 48 credits. These cases will be brought to attention of the Assistant Dean of Academic Programs who has the authority to require candidates to pursue this alternative path.
Advising Note for Biology, Biotechnology, and Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Candidates: Thesis projects in these fields are designed to support ongoing scientific research happening in Harvard University, other academic institutions, and life science industry labs and usually under the direction of a principal investigator (PI). Hence, you need to have a thesis director approved by your research advisor prior to submitting CTP prework. Your CTP prework is then framed by the lab’s research.
CTP Prework is sent to our central email box: firstname.lastname@example.org between:
- April 1 and June 1 for fall CTP
- September 1 and November 1 for spring CTP.
- August 1 and October 1 for the three-week January session (sustainability only)
- February 1 and March 15 for the three-week summer session (sustainability only).
If you miss the submission deadlines, you will not be allowed to register for CTP until the next application cycle.
Your research advisor will provide feedback on your prework submission, suggesting potential additions or revisions in order to gain CTP registration approval. Your research advisor will either approve or not approve your edited submission. If not approved, you’ll need to take additional time for further revisions, and then submit the revised prework during the next CTP prework submission time period for the following term.
3. Register and Complete CTP
Once CTP prework is approved, you register for the CTP as you would any other course. The goal of the CTP is to produce a complete, well-written draft of a proposal containing all of the sections required by your research advisor. Creating an academically strong thesis proposal sets the foundation for a high-quality thesis and garners the attention of well-respected thesis director. The proposal is normally between 15 to 25 pages in length.
The CTP tutorial is not a course in the traditional sense. You work independently on your proposal with your research advisor by submitting multiple proposal drafts and scheduling individual appointments (ordinarily, during the hours of 9-5). You need to make self-directed progress on the proposal without special prompting from the research advisor. You receive a final grade of SAT or UNSAT (failing grade). The CTP for sustainability is a three-week course in the traditional sense and you receive a letter grade, and it must be B- or higher to receive degree credit for the course.
You are expected to incorporate all of your research advisor’s feedback and be fully committed to producing an academically strong proposal leading to a thesis worthy of a Harvard degree. If you are unable to take advice from your research advisor, follow directions, or produce an acceptable proposal, you will not pass the CTP and you'll have (if your five-year, degree-completion date allows) just one more attempt to complete the CTP before being required to withdraw from the program.
If the CTP is not successfully completed prior to your five-year deadline, your candidacy will be expired. If by not passing the CTP you fall into poor academic standing, you'll need to take additional degree-applicable courses to return to good standing before enrolling in the CTP for your second and final time. This is only an option if your five-year deadline allows for more time to take additional courses.
If your thesis, regardless of field (English literature or psychology), will involve the use of human subjects (e.g., interviews, surveys, observations), you will need 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 will help you prepare a draft copy of the project protocol form that you will need to send to CUHS. The vetting needs to happen during the CTP tutorial in order for it to be done prior to thesis director assignment.
4. Register for the 8-Credit Master’s Thesis
Once you (1) successfully complete the CTP and (2) have your proposal officially approved by your research advisor (RA), you move to the thesis director assignment phase. Please note that successful completion of the CTP is not the same as having an officially approved proposal. These are two distinct steps.
If you are a life science student (e.g., biology), your thesis director was identified prior to the CTP, and now you need the thesis director to approve the proposal.
The research advisor is responsible for placing you with a thesis director. Unless explicitly told otherwise (such as for candidates in the Sustainability program), do not approach faculty to ask about directing your thesis without an approved thesis proposal and permission from your research advisor.
When a thesis director has been identified or the thesis proposal has been fully vetted by the pre-assigned life science thesis director, you will receive a letter of authorization from the assistant dean of academic programs officially approving your thesis work and providing you with instructions on how to register for the eight-credit Master’s Thesis. The letter will also have a thesis due date, which will be nine months from when your director was assigned along with a tentative graduation date (see timetable below).
Master’s Thesis 1 and 2. Some students, due to the scope of their thesis projects or perhaps due to a late thesis topic alteration, may need to continue to work on finishing their thesis proposals during the semester following successful completion of the CTP tutorial. If you are one of these students, at the end of the CTP, you’ll receive a communication from the ALM Advising Office regarding the option of registering for the thesis in two steps: Thesis 1 (4-credits), where you work closely with your research advisor on the final edits to the proposal for a maximum of one semester and then, Thesis 2 (4-credits), when the director is assigned. Thesis 1 registration requires that you gain official approval of your proposal within the semester following CTP completion. If not, you’ll receive a Thesis Not Complete (TNC) grade for Thesis 1.
To ensure affordability, tuition rates for thesis work are the same as our regular course tuition: $5,800 (4-credit tuition x two) for the 8-credit Master's Thesis.
Master's Thesis 1: $2,900 and Master's Thesis 2: $2,900.
Please note you can't register for Master’s Thesis Part Two until the Master's Thesis Part One course is paid in full.
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 CTP registration 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 8-credit Master's Thesis (or Master's Thesis 2) 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).
- Advising tip: If you want to graduate in May, you need to register for the fall CTP. There is simply not enough time between CTP completion at the end of May and thesis director assignment by June 1.
5. Conduct Thesis Research
When registered in the thesis, you work diligently and independently, following the advice of your thesis director, in a consistent, regular manner equivalent to full-time academic work to complete the research by your required nine-month timeline.
Every student is given nine months to complete a thesis, but if it becomes necessary, you may request a three-month extension. Such extensions will only be approved if you have been making adequate, consistent academic progress on your research and your thesis director agrees that he or she can continue to work beyond the standard nine month timeframe.
You are required to produce at least 50 pages of text (not including front matter and appendices). Chapter topics (e.g., introduction, background, methods, findings, conclusion) vary by field. The following ALM Thesis Template has all the mandatory thesis formatting built in. Besides providing you with a template that will save you considerable amount of time as you write your thesis, you are required to use the preprogrammed form to ensure that your submitted thesis meets mandatory ALM style guidelines for margins, font, title page, table of contents, and chapter heading.
Please note: The ALM Advising Office will do a three-month check-in with you and your thesis director. If at this time, your thesis director reports that you have not made any progress on your thesis, the dean of academic programs reserves the right to issue a thesis not complete (TNC) grade (see Thesis Grading below).
6. Submit 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. All thesis submissions must adhere to mandatory thesis formatting and final sign off by the research advisor; it is a requirement for the degree.
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.
You need to earn a grade of B- or higher in the thesis. All standard course letter grades are available to your thesis director. If you fail to complete substantial work on 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 grade below B-, you will need to petition the Administrative Board for permission to attempt the thesis for a second and final time. The petition process is only available if you are in good academic standing and your five-year, degree-completion deadline allows for more time. Your candidacy will automatically expire if you do not successfully complete the thesis by your required deadline.
If approved for a second attempt, you may be required to develop a new proposal on a different topic by re-enrolling in the CTP and being assigned a different thesis director. Tuition for the second attempt is calculated at the current year's rate.
If by not passing the thesis you fall into poor academic standing, you'll need to take additional degree-applicable courses to return to good standing before re-engaging with the thesis process for the second and final time. This is only an option if your five-year, degree-completion deadline allows for more time.
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.