In consultation with the advisor, who also serves as first reader of the dissertation, students invite faculty members to join the dissertation committee, which is ordinarily formed no later than one term after the completion of the general exam. The committee is typically comprised of three readers, though a student may have as few as two or as many as four.

What is the Dissertation Committee?

The dissertation committee is composed of either three or four members, at least two of whom are ordinarily members or formal affiliates of the History Department. The adviser must be a member of the History Department.

    • First Reader / Adviser: The Dissertation Committee is chaired by a member of the History Department who has been designated as the student’s adviser. The Adviser works closely with the student at all stages of the dissertation, from formulation of the topic through writing and defense.
    • Second Reader: a senior or junior faculty member from the history department, or affiliated with the department as listed in the Courses of Instruction. If a student wishes to include a second reader who is not affiliated with the department, he or she submits a petition to the coordinator for approval by the director of graduate studies.
    • Third Reader: may be a member of another department, faculty, or university. With the permission of the advisor and the DGS, a candidate may choose not to approach a third reader for academic reasons. If a student wishes not to have a third reader, he or she must make that decision known to the Coordinator of Graduate Studies by the end of the spring semester of their fourth year.
    • Fourth Reader: optional; may be added toward the completion of the dissertation. Note: the dissertation defense committee will consist of the student's dissertation committee plus one additional member (see "Oral Defense and Defense Committee" below.)

Throughout the research and writing phase, students are urged to maintain communication with all readers, and submit chapters as they are completed to the committee as a whole.

To complete the administrative process of forming the committee, students submit the dissertation committee form to the coordinator. The form requires the signatures of each reader, so please begin collecting signatures as soon as possible.

Changes to the Dissertation Committee

After establishing a dissertation committee, a student may choose to replace a reader. This decision should be made after careful consideration and consultation with his or her advisor. The student should initiate discussions with the current and potential reader; and it is important there should be no ambiguity about the new reader’s agreement to serve on the Committee. The Graduate Coordinator, once notified, will update the official record of committee names.

Oral Defense and the Defense Committee

Students defend their dissertation before it is approved by the dissertation defense committee.* The defense committee consists of the student’s dissertation committee plus one additional member drawn from the History Department, another Harvard department, or outside the University. Prior to the oral defense, each member of the defense committee may write a detailed report on the dissertation, but this is not required. The defense itself should last approximately two hours. It is open to the intellectual community of faculty and graduate students as well as friends and family of the candidate. Once the dissertation has been successfully defended, the members of the defense committee sign the dissertation acceptance certificate, and append their reports to it.

Defense Deadlines

The defense needs to be held before the GSAS dissertation submission deadline, and final dissertations must be submitted to the members of the Dissertation Defense Committee at least one month in advance to give them time to prepare their reports. This suggests the following timelines:

For a May Degree:
Dissertation due at GSAS by mid-May. Therefore, the defense must occur no later than early May (again, with final draft submitted at least a month prior).

For a November degree:
Dissertation due at GSAS by mid-September. Therefore, the defense must occur no later than early September (with final draft submitted at least a month prior).

Students can also apply for a March degree. The GSAS dissertation submission deadline for March degrees is in mid-January, which means that students aiming for the March degree will need to defend by mid-December, before the winter break.

Where do I submit my dissertation?

Online submission of the dissertation via ETD @ Harvard is required by the Graduate School. Dissertations must be received by 11:59 pm on the deadline date for the given degree period. NO EXTENSIONS TO THIS DEADLINE ARE PROVIDED.


Dissertations should be submitted in their final format, in accordance with the guidelines listed in the Form of the PhD Dissertation booklet, and ready for publication. The Registrar’s Office will review the document for formatting compliance. Formatting errors may prevent the conferral of the degree and the student may need to apply for the next available degree period. A sample dissertation as well as the Top Ten Common Errors are provided for your convenience.

The following two surveys must be completed and completion confirmation codes provided during dissertation submission.

1. Survey of Earned Doctorates

2. GSAS Exit Survey of Postgraduate Plans

In addition to the electronic dissertation submission, the original complete and signed Dissertation Acceptance Certificate must be delivered to the Registrar's Office, Smith Campus Center, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Suite 450, Cambridge, MA 02138 by the appropriate dissertation deadline. This certificate should be typed, printed on watermark paper, and match the dissertation title page exactly. It must be signed by a minimum of three readers, two of whom must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The student name must match the legal name on file at the Registrar's Office.