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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.

Below are the steps that you need to follow to fulfill the thesis requirement. Please know that through each step, you will receive guidance and mentorship.

1. Determine Your Thesis Topic and Tentative Question

When you have completed between 24 and 32 credits, you work with your assigned research advisor to narrow down your academic interests to a relevant and manageable thesis topic. Log in to MyDCE, then ALB/ALM Community to schedule an appointment with your assigned research advisor via the Degree Candidate Portal.

Thesis Topic Selection

We’ve put together this guide to help frame your thinking about thesis topic selection. Below are a few caveats about topic choice.

  1. Every effort is made to support your research interests that are 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.
  2. The point about topics is particularly pertinent to scientific research that is dependent upon laboratory space, project funding, and access to private databases.
  3. It is also critical for our candidates in ALM, liberal arts fields (English, government, history, international relations, psychology, etc.) who are required to have Harvard faculty direct their thesis projects. Review Harvard’s 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 topic.
  4. 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.

2. Prepare Prework for the Crafting the Thesis Proposal (CTP) Course or Tutorial

The next step in the process is to prepare and submit Prework in order to gain registration approval for the Crafting the Thesis Proposal (CTP) tutorial or course. The Prework process ensures that you have done enough prior reading and thinking about your thesis topic to benefit from the CTP.

The CTP provides an essential onramp to the thesis, mapping critical issues of research design, such as 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 get off to a good start.

In addition to preparing, submitting, and having your Prework approved, to be eligible for the CTP, 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.

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, or life science industry labs and usually these are done 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. Schedule an appointment with your research advisor a few months in advance of the CTP prework deadlines in order to discuss potential research projects and thesis director assignment.

CTP Prework is sent to our central email box: thesis_prework@extension.harvard.edu between the following firm deadlines:

  • 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 (ALM sustainability candidates only)
  • February 1 and March 15 for the three-week summer session (ALM sustainability candidates only).

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 then 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 (if your five-year degree completion deadline allows).

3. Register and Successfully Complete the Crafting the Thesis Proposal Tutorial or Course

Once CTP prework is approved, you register for the Crafting the Thesis Proposal (CTP) course or tutorial 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 helps garner the attention of a 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. 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.

Human Subjects

If your thesis, regardless of field, 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 process needs to be started during the CTP tutorial, before a thesis director has been assigned.

4. Thesis Director Assignment and Thesis Registration

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 places you with a thesis director. Do not approach faculty to ask about directing your thesis.  You may suggest names of any potential thesis directors to your research advisor, who will contact them, if they are eligible/available to direct your thesis, after you have an approved thesis proposal.

When a thesis director has been identified or the thesis proposal has been fully vetted by the preassigned 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 tentative graduation date as well as three mandatory thesis submission dates (see Thesis Timetable below).

Tuition

To ensure affordability, tuition rates for thesis work are the same as our regular course tuition: (4-credit tuition x two) for the 8-credit Master’s Thesis.

Thesis Timetable

The date for the appointment of your Thesis Director determines the graduation cycle that will be automatically assigned to you. 

You do not submit your thesis all at once at the end, but in three phases: (1) full draft, (2) final draft, and (3) format approved draft. Due dates for all three phases for your assigned graduation cycle cannot be missed. You must submit materials by the date indicated by 5 PM EST (even if the date falls on a weekend). If you are late, you will not be able to graduate during your assigned cycle.

If you need additional time to complete your thesis after the date it is due to the Thesis Director (first phase), you need to formally request an extension (approved by your Director) by emailing that petition to:  thesis_questions@extension.harvard.edu.  The maximum allotted time to write your thesis, including any granted extensions of time, is 12 months.

To graduate in …MayNovMarch
Appointment of Thesis Director (TD)March 1 – June 30August 15* – October 31November 1 – February 28
Full draft due to TD for commentary
You have one month to make all TD requested changes.
February 1July 15October 1
Final draft (w/ TD changes) due to Research Advisor for format review.
You have one month to make all format review changes.
March 1August 15November 1
Format approved draft submitted to TD for grading
TD has two weeks for grading.
April 1September 15December 1
Thesis Director submits gradeApril 15October 1December 15
Please note: We will do a 3-month check-in with you and your thesis director to ensure progress is being made. If your thesis director reports little to no progress, the Dean of Academic Programs reserves the right to issue a thesis not complete (TNC) grade (see Thesis Grading below). *For November graduates, if you are facing urgent financial aid or veteran’s benefits deadlines, you may request special processing of your thesis registration from July 1 to August 14 (if a thesis director has been identified). TD assignments in mid-summer are challenging to obtain due to faculty availability.

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 timeline.

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.

6. Format Review

All ALM thesis projects must follow a specific Harvard University format. A properly formatted thesis is an explicit degree requirement; you cannot graduate without it.

Your research advisor will complete the format review prior to submitting your thesis to your director for final grading according to the Thesis Timetable (see above).

You must use our ALM Thesis Template.  It has all the mandatory thesis formatting built in. Besides saving you a considerable amount of time as you write your thesis, the preprogrammed form ensures that your submitted thesis meets the mandatory style guidelines for margins, font, title page, table of contents, and chapter heading. If you use the template, format review should go smoothly, if not, a delayed graduation is highly likely.

Format review also includes a check on the proper use of sources according to our academic integrity guidelines.

7. Mandatory Thesis Sharing and Archiving

Once your thesis is finalized, meaning that the required grade has been earned and all edits have been completed, you upload your thesis to Harvard University’s electronic thesis and dissertation submission system (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.

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.

Thesis Grading

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.

Advising note about CTP Prework: 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.

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.