Dissertation and Final Oral Exam

[Part of the Policies of the CHD, last updated fall 2021]


The dissertation must represent an original and significant contribution to knowledge.  The dissertation should be a coherent document conforming with the customary standards of scholarly discourse and addressed to a broad audience in the corresponding subject rather than to a narrow audience of specialists in the field.  SEAS does not follow the practice in which a collection of manuscripts published or intended for publication as technical papers constitutes an acceptable dissertation.  It should be understood, however, that the student has an obligation to prepare the work for publication in the archival literature in timely fashion.  The dissertation must meet the GSAS requirements available at https://gsas.harvard.edu/degree-requirements/dissertations/formatting-your-dissertation .

Final Oral Exam ("Defense")

The last two requirements are the final Ph.D. oral examination and an electronic copy of the dissertation submitted as a PDF file.  The student must deliver a complete penultimate draft of the dissertation (except for the acknowledgments) to all members of the research committee at least two weeks prior to the final examination. Once the student has agreed upon a time for the examination with all members of the research committee, the student is responsible for contacting the Office of Academic Programs (quals_defenses@seas.harvard.edu) at least two weeks in advance in order to prepare the exam paperwork, and, if needed, to schedule a room.

The final oral exam (i.e., the defense) is the culmination of a student’s years of effort and formally marks the candidate’s entry into the community of scholars.   As such, the candidate and committee should strive to meet together in person for the exam.  If after attempting to schedule a time for the full committee to meet together in person it appears that no such time can be found, the candidate should consult with the Office of Academic Programs about alternatives, possibly including that one or more committee members attend remotely.

SEAS encourages candidates to provide a videoconferencing (e.g., Zoom) option for remote attendance by guests, community members and the public who may not be able to attend in person.

The final examination is essentially a presentation and defense of the dissertation, though more general questions relating to the field of the dissertation are in order.  At the end of the examination, the research committee may accept the dissertation, possibly subject to agreed-upon revisions, or specify further requirements.  If other than minor revisions are involved, the nature of the conditions that need to be met should be reported to the DGS.  The research advisor must certify in writing that these conditions have been met before award of the degree can formally be recommended by the Dean. 

SEAS facilities are the usual location for the final defense.  A student planning a defense to be held outside of SEAS must have the approval of all their committee members before finalizing the location of the defense. Arrangements as to location will be made by the student through the Office of Academic Programs. Public notice will be given.  The Office of Academic Programs strongly encourages students to schedule their defense not later than two weeks before the GSAS Ph.D. Dissertation submission deadline.