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Dissertation Requirements

Dissertation Requirements

Within 36 months of successful completion of the oral examination, the S.J.D. candidate should complete and submit a dissertation that represents a substantial and valuable contribution to the scholarship in its field and is suitable for publication.

A dissertation will generally constitute such a contribution, for example, if it explores new areas of intellectual inquiry, provides new insights or analyses, or offers a new conceptual framework for understanding the subject area. A dissertation that merely surveys, catalogs, or compiles relevant literature, legislation, case material, and/or the ideas of others would not satisfy the standard.

With respect to planning out the final year of S.J.D. studies leading up to the submission of a completed dissertation for review and defense, please note that beginning in academic year 2020-2021, a candidate must have completed the Second Colloquium at least six months prior to the intended graduation date. (See “Second Colloquium” under Academics:  S.J.D. Candidates for further information.)

Prohibited Submissions: Commissioned studies, committee reports, and writings of joint authorship will not be accepted in fulfillment of the dissertation requirement.

Length of Dissertation: While there is no prescribed length, a majority of dissertations are approximately 250 to 300 pages (the equivalent of a book-length manuscript), but in certain areas such as law and economics the norm tends to be shorter. Length is in part a function of the subject chosen and should be discussed with the principal supervisor.

Permission and Required Format for Multiple-Essay Submissions: The dissertation is generally expected to be in the form of a monograph. In cases where the dissertation explores law and another discipline, a series of related essays may be acceptable with the approval of the Graduate Committee. Where this format is approved, the candidate must also submit for approval an introductory and/or concluding essay that draws on and comprehensively synthesizes the other essays by establishing a general thesis supported by these essays.

To request permission to submit a dissertation in the form of multiple essays, candidates should present for the Graduate Committee’s review—as soon as possible but in any event no later than nine months before the intended graduation date—a petition that:

  • sets forth the substance of the dissertation project as a whole and an explanation of why a multiple-essay for- mat is more appropriate than a monograph in light of the nature and focus of the dissertation project and the norm for dissertations in the relevant discipline
  • acknowledges the requirement to include a synthetic essay that draws on the other essays and establishes a general thesis supported by these essays
  • sets forth in sufficient detail the substance of the synthetic essay (or the student may submit a draft of the synthetic essay)

Candidates should also ask their principal supervisors to provide a statement of support for the multiple-essay format in light of the norm for dissertations in the relevant discipline.

NOTE: While such requests—when presented in a timely manner and in compliance with the above specifications—are generally granted, candidates should not assume that requests for multiple-essay submissions are automatically granted.


The dissertation defense committee (hereafter the “defense committee”) is comprised of the candidate’s principal supervisor and a second reader, who should be a Harvard Law School faculty member with expertise in the candidate’s dissertation topic. The second reader is to be selected by the candidate in conjunction with the principal supervisor as soon as possible upon completion of the prospectus (see “Prospectus” under Academics:  S.J.D. Candidates). If the candidate and the principal supervisor deem it useful, an additional reader (who need not be on the faculty of Harvard Law School) may be included on the defense committee. Once the second reader (or readers) has been identified, the candidate should report their name(s) to the Graduate Program Office.


The manuscript should have a margin of 1½ or 1¾ inches on the left side of the page to allow for reader comments and to permit binding. While there is no predetermined format for the cover page, each candidate should check with that candidate’s principal supervisor for specific requirements or preferences. At a minimum, the candidate’s name, the dissertation title, the names of the members of the defense committee, and the date of submission should be included.

Candidates should not at any stage submit permanently bound copies of the dissertation; dissertation copies do not require hard covers.


Candidates are strongly encouraged to submit drafts of chapters or portions of their dissertation on an ongoing basis to each of the defense committee members for timely feedback, instead of waiting until the entire dissertation is completed.

Deadline for submission: The completed dissertation must be submitted to the Graduate Program Office not later than 36 months after the completion of the oral examination. Dissertations submitted after the expiration of this 36-month limit will be accepted only if prior approval for an extension has been obtained from the principal supervisor and the Committee on Graduate Studies (see “Extension of Dissertation Period” below).

Please see “Degree Deadlines” below for further information regarding deadlines and degree dates.


(Note: The process and timing described in this and the following sections will apply to candidates graduating after May 2020. Candidates graduating in or before May 2020 should contact the Graduate Program for information about applicable deadlines.)

Typically, within one month after submission of the completed dissertation to the Graduate Program Office (which will in turn circulate copies thereof to the principal supervisor and second reader or readers), the defense committee will provide an initial evaluation with written comments as to whether the dissertation needs (1) minimal revision, (2) significant revision, or (3) major rewriting. However, if the dissertation is submitted around the winter holiday break and one or more members of the defense committee will be teaching during the January term, the evaluation period may take up to two months; in such cases the dissertation must be submitted by no later than December 15 if the candidate wishes to graduate in May of the following year.

If a dissertation needs only minimal revision, a date for the dissertation defense can be scheduled within the following two months, but in any event not later than six weeks before the intended graduation date. If a dissertation needs significant revision, the candidate will have up to six weeks to complete the necessary revisions and submit the revised document to the Graduate Program Office; if the defense committee deems the revisions to be satisfactory, the defense may then be scheduled within the following two or three weeks, but in any event not later than six weeks prior to the intended graduation date.

If a dissertation requires major rewriting, the candidate may need to spend one or more additional semesters to complete this work. In cases where such candidate is approaching a completion deadline, the candidate will need to petition for an extension in order to spend one or more semesters to work on these revisions (see “Extension of Dissertation Period” below on how to apply for an extension); if the candidate is not eligible for any more extensions, the Graduate Committee will require the candidate to withdraw from the S.J.D. Program. (The Graduate Program staff will address logistical details regarding such withdrawal with the candidate at that time.) If the candidate subsequently completes the necessary revisions in a satisfactory manner, the candidate may then petition for readmission in order to carry out the dissertation defense. In cases where a dissertation requires major rewriting, any member of the defense committee may refer the matter to the Graduate Committee.


Following completion of the dissertation, each candidate must pass an oral defense examination on the dissertation as a whole, which may include a discussion of publication possibilities. The examination is to be given by the dissertation defense committee and may, if necessary, include a representative of the Committee on Graduate Studies. A report on the oral defense must be completed and signed by each member of the defense committee and submitted to the Graduate Program by the relevant due date (see “Degree Deadlines” below for applicable deadlines).

NOTE: It is the candidate’s responsibility to schedule a time and location for the oral defense with the dissertation defense committee members within the necessary timeframe leading up to graduation. Once scheduled, the date must be reported to the Graduate Program Office at least two weeks in advance of the date of the defense.

Once the defense committee gives final approval to the dissertation and corrections, if any, are made, two unbound copies printed on acid-free paper must be submitted to the Graduate Program Office for deposit with the Law School Library. At this time, a Library Authorization form must also be signed. The Library will arrange for permanent binding.


In order to determine whether to recommend to the Law School faculty that a candidate be awarded the S.J.D. degree, the Graduate Committee must receive written reports from the principal supervisor and the second reader(s) evaluating the final dissertation, as well as a separate report of the oral defense. These reports—as well as the final version of the approved dissertation (for deposit with the HLS Library)— must be received by no later than around September 15 to qualify for a November degree, January 15 to qualify for a March degree, or May 1 to qualify for a May degree. (Please note: Reports on the oral (general) examination, described under Academics:  S.J.D. Candidates, should already be a part of the candidate’s file.) The Committee on Graduate Studies will not consider recommendations from supervisors after the relevant dates listed above.

The following chart illustrates the applicable completion milestones leading up to each of the University’s key graduation dates:

S.J.D. Degree Completion Timeline
Intended Graduation Date Submit dissertation to Graduate Program (no later than) Evaluation from Defense Committee to Candidate (no later than) If necessary, revised dissertation to Defense Committee (no later than) Dissertation defense (no later than) Final Reports by Defense Committee to Graduate Program (no later than)
November 2020 May 15, 2020 June 15, 2020 August 3, 2020 September 3, 2020 September 15, 2020
March 2021 September 15, 2020 October 15, 2020 December 1, 2020 January 4, 2020 January 15, 2020
May 2021 January 15, 2021* February 15, 2021 April 1, 2021 April 15, 2021 May 3, 2021
* December 15, 2020 if one or more members of the Defense Committee will be teaching during the January term


Extensions for completion of the S.J.D. dissertation beyond the 36-month period following the oral exam will be granted on a case-by-case basis pursuant to the procedure described in the next paragraph. Under no circumstances will extensions be granted beyond 72 months from the end of the first year of S.J.D. candidacy.**

To apply for an extension, candidates and their principal supervisors must submit to the Committee on Graduate Studies a written request for an extension. The request should explain why an extension is necessary and should provide the expected completion date. Receipt of this request will initiate Committee review; the results of the Committee’s review will be reported to the candidate shortly thereafter.

** The Graduate Committee may grant extensions of up to (but under no circumstances exceeding) 108 months from the end of the first year of S.J.D. residence to candidates pursuing second doctoral degrees provided: (1) the candidate has been pursuing a second doctoral degree concurrently with the S.J.D. candidacy, and (2) the candidate has completed the other doctoral degree within 72 months after the end of the first year of S.J.D. candidacy.

Completing the S.J.D. Program: An Illustrative Timetable

Completing the S.J.D. Program: An Illustrative Timetable

Candidates must complete all course requirements during the first year of study (the required year in residence). Candidates must complete the oral examination no later than the 19th month from the beginning of S.J.D. studies, which for most candidates would mean March of the second year of study (see “The Oral (General) Examination” under Academics:  S.J.D. Candidates). The period for completion of the S.J.D. dissertation will be influenced by a number of factors, including whether field research is involved. An illustrative timetable follows.


Discussion with principal supervisor and orals committee members

Assemble reading lists and consult with members of the orals committee; prepare study plan

September 30:
Submit draft study plan to Graduate Program Office

October 31:
Final revisions, if any, to the study plan; submit copy to Graduate Program Office

Completion of eight credits of course and seminar work; oral examination held; orals committee sends oral examination report to Graduate Program Office

NOTE: Candidates should discuss their progress with their principal supervisors and orals committee members regularly throughout the year.


Begin research and writing; draft prospectus (see Academics: S.J.D. Candidates)

Present prospectus draft to principal supervisor; continue research and writing

Finalize prospectus and obtain approval by principal supervisor; submit prospectus to Graduate Program Office and schedule first colloquium

In conjunction with principal supervisor, identify and select second reader for dissertation
Continuation of research and writing
First presentation of work at the S.J.D. Colloquium (by the 28th month from the beginning of S.J.D. studies or 12 months from the completion of the oral examination, whichever is earlier)

NOTE: Candidates should meet or consult with their principal supervisor at least every two months throughout the year.


Continuation of research and writing; send draft chapters to principal supervisor and second reader


(NOTE: The following timetable applies to May degree candidates; for November and March degrees, see “Degree Deadlines” above.)

Second presentation at the S.J.D. Colloquium

No later than January 15*:
Tentative completion of dissertation and submission to Graduate Program Office
*December 15 if one or more members of the defense committee will be teaching during January term

No later than February 15:
Evaluation of dissertation by defense committee sent to candidate; if only minor revisions are needed, may schedule defense at any time up to April 15

No later than April 1:
Submission of revised dissertation in cases where significant revisions are required

No later than April 15:
Dissertation defense

May 1:
Final report from defense committee on dissertation and oral defense

May 15:
Completed dissertation (two copies) due in Graduate Program Office

Awarding of S.J.D. degree

NOTE: Candidates intending to finish the dissertation within 24 months of the end of the required residency period should follow the “Fourth Year” schedule during their third year.

Compliance with Requirements

Compliance with Requirements

S.J.D. candidates who fail to meet or consult periodically with their principal supervisors or to submit the required reports, or to pay all fees each year, or who otherwise violate residency or other requirements may be withdrawn from the S.J.D. program.

Residency Status

Residency Status


Beyond the mandatory first year in residence, four different enrollment statuses are available to S.J.D. students: Resident, Traveling Scholar, Leave of Absence, and Enrolled Full- Time at Another Harvard School. The latter three categories are collectively referred to as “non-resident.”

  • Resident Students are those students who, for the entire academic year or semester in question, are physically resident in the Cambridge area and are engaged primarily in their S.J.D. studies. Such students have full access to Harvard’s resources and facilities, including residence halls and Harvard-owned housing, and are eligible for Harvard visa sponsorship. Only Resident students are eligible for such benefits as Graduate Program-sponsored fellowships and conference funding (see below). All first-year S.J.D. students must register for Resident status.
  • Traveling Scholars are those students who are physically located outside of the Cambridge area but are engaged primarily in their S.J.D. studies. Such students have full access to Harvard’s online resources and access to Harvard’s library facilities during their visits to campus, and are also eligible for Harvard visa sponsorship. Traveling Scholars are not eligible for Graduate Program-sponsored fellowships or conference funding and are eligible for financial aid only if funds are still available after the needs of the Resident Students have been met.
  • Leave of Absence Students are those students who are devoting less than half of their time to their S.J.D. studies, regardless of their physical location. Such students retain their Harvard e-mail accounts only; they do not have access to Harvard’s other resources and are not eligible for Harvard visa sponsorship, conference funding, Graduate Program financial aid, or Graduate Program-sponsored fellowships. Students in this category with outstanding student loans may have to begin repayment.
  • Students Enrolled Full-Time at Another Harvard School will retain their Harvard Law School e-mail accounts, but are not eligible for Graduate Program financial aid, conference funding, or Graduate Program- sponsored fellowships. Access to other Harvard resources (including library privileges and visa sponsorship) will be available through the Harvard school in which they are enrolled full-time.

NOTE: Students must update their residence status each summer (even if it will not be changing) and may change their status on a semester-by-semester basis, but not more frequently.


The Registrar’s Office administers an online registration check-in process that is available for all S.J.D. candidates who plan to be in residence during fall 2019. This process will be available online by no later than August 12, 2019. All continuing S.J.D. students who will be in residence during 2019-2020 must complete this online registration process by no later than September 3, 2019. S.J.D. students will receive an e-mail in August from the Graduate Program Office with detailed information on how to complete the online registration/check-in process. Please note that all new S.J.D. students must complete this online registration process by September 3, 2019. Otherwise, a late registration penalty of $250 will be assessed. First-year S.J.D. students are also required to check in with the Graduate Program in person by appointment; appointment requests may be sent to

In order to register for Resident status, continuing S. J. D. students should also obtain financial clearance from the Graduate Program office by 4 p.m. on September 3, 2019. Otherwise, they will be subject to a $250 late financial clearance fee, and their Resident status will be suspended until they complete their financial clearance.

All S. J. D. students who will not be in residence during the 2019-2020 academic year must have completed the Application for Non-Resident S. J. D. Status and submitted it to the Graduate Program office no later than June 24, 2019. This form indicates, among other things, the student’s planned activities for the coming academic year, where the student expects to be physically located, and the status for which the student plans to register (e.g., Traveling Scholar or Leave of Absence). In order to be valid, the form must be signed by the student’s principal supervisor; in the case of students holding a non-U.S. passport who wish to be non- resident, the form must also be signed by a representative of the Harvard International Office. Failure to submit a properly completed form by the applicable deadline may result in the student being placed on Leave of Absence status by default.




Current Harvard LL.M. students applying to the S.J.D. program are permitted to “waive” the LL.M. degree prior to graduation. If admitted to the S.J.D. program, an applicant who waives the LL.M. degree will not be awarded the LL.M. degree. However, the student will be permitted to count the tuition paid for the LL.M. year in satisfaction of the Harvard University requirement that a student pay at least one year’s full tuition for every degree that the student receives. For the first year of S.J.D. studies, students who have waived the LL.M. degree are charged tuition of $1,000. Otherwise, tuition for the first year of S.J.D. studies is the same as tuition for the LL.M. degree. The election to waive the LL.M. degree has no effect on admissions decisions or the academic requirements for the S.J.D. degree. Waiving the LL.M. degree does, however, preclude the applicant from taking courses for credit during the S.J.D. studies. (In exceptional cases, the Committee on Graduate Studies may approve a candidate’s petition to take a particular course for credit if the candidate’s supervisor supports the request on academic grounds.) The waiver is also permanent. An admitted candidate who waives the LL.M. degree may subsequently elect to receive the LL.M. degree only by withdrawing from the S.J.D. program. The LL.M. waiver option is not available to those who have already received their LL.M. degrees from Harvard when applying to the S.J.D. program.

S.J.D. students who have waived their Harvard LL.M. degrees should reflect their LL.M. studies on their résumés and in similar contexts by language such as the following: “Harvard Law School LL.M. Program [date] (requirements completed, degree waived).” Under no circumstances should they represent themselves as having actually received the LL.M. degree.


The Graduate Program has some funding available for Graduate Program Fellowship positions such as LL.M. Advisor, Writing Workshop Teaching Assistant, Graduate Forum Coordinator, Harvard Empirical Legal Studies Coordinator, and the like. Selections for these positions are made based on an application process held in the spring of each academic year. Application materials for these positions become available in April; questions should be directed to the Graduate Program Director of Administration and Student Affairs.

In addition, each year the Graduate Program offers a limited number of Byse Fellowships, named in honor of the late Byrne Professor of Law Clark Byse. These fellowships are intended to help fund the dissertation work of S.J.D. students who have completed their oral examinations as well as their first colloquium. Fellows are expected to teach a one- semester Graduate Program workshop of their own design and to be in residence for the entire year of their appointment. The Program currently selects Byse Fellows for the coming academic year in June of each year. Application materials for these positions become available in April.


S.J.D. students are eligible for limited funding to cover certain expenses related to their studies. First, resident S.J.D. students may apply for a stipend of up to $750 each academic year (the period beginning on July 1 and ending on June 30) for expenses incurred in order to attend academic conferences outside of the Boston area. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis; submission of a stipend request does not guarantee approval. In order to be eligible for this stipend:

  1. the student must be in residence
  2. the student must seek written permission from the Graduate Program at least four weeks in advance of the planned travel
  3. the travel must be for a conference that takes place within the academic year in which the student is in residence (from July 1 through June 30)
  4. the student must not be eligible to receive funding from other sources to cover these expenses
  5. the requisite post-travel paperwork, along with receipts, must be submitted to the Graduate Program Office no later than three (3) weeks after the applicable conference date

Second, the Graduate Program will reimburse orals committee members who are affiliated with an academic institution outside the Boston area up to $500 for expenses incurred for travel to Cambridge for the student’s oral examination, as appropriate, if the examiner’s own academic institution will not bear the cost of such travel.

Requests for reimbursement must be submitted at least four weeks in advance of the intended travel. Reimbursement is made after the fact upon presentation of actual receipts and completion of forms required by Harvard University. Please note that requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis and that a request does not guarantee reimbursement of travel expenses for conference attendance or for outside examiners.


Dedicated work space is made available to resident S.J.D. candidates based on current availability, with priority given to those in the second or third year of their residency. Nonresident S.J.D. candidates are not eligible for work space. Work space assignments are made for the academic year or for a single term; desk occupancy begins in September and ends in May. S.J.D. candidates who wish to remain in their assigned desks during the summer must send a request to the Graduate Program office no later than April 15; where possible, these requests will be accommodated. Students are entitled to work space for a period of two years, normally during the second and third years of S.J.D. residency. If space permits, this privilege may be extended to students beyond the third year.