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Each S.J.D. student pursues a program of study that is tailored specifically to their academic interests. The process of developing this program of study begins with the S.J.D. application, in which the candidate identifies a proposed dissertation topic, an overall faculty supervisor, and proposed members of an orals committee. Once the applicant is admitted to the program, this topic is then refined into a study plan during the fall of the first year of S.J.D. studies, then further refined as the candidate’s studies progress.

Our students pursue a wide range of dissertation topics—from behavioral approaches to law and economics; to the transformation of legal and democratic institutions in Central and Eastern Europe; to the role of prosecutors in the U.S. and Latin America; to the role of criminal defense lawyers in South Africa; to critical approaches to international law. Many of our students incorporate the insights of other disciplines into their work, drawing on the expertise and assistance of not only the Harvard Law School faculty but also that of scholars elsewhere at Harvard University and at other leading universities in the U.S. and abroad.

The Study Plan

Unlike many other doctoral programs, Harvard Law School does not prescribe a particular sequence of courses for its S.J.D. students. Rather, the candidate spends the beginning of the autumn of the first year developing a “study plan,” or academic itinerary for the first year or two of study. This study plan includes a combination of courses, readings, and other academic work framed in the context of the candidate’s specific fields of study, and lays a foundation for later work on the dissertation. Preparing a workable study plan requires candidates to undertake independent research, review past study plans that treat related topics, and consult with their faculty supervisors (all of whom are selected by the student) and members of the Graduate Program staff.

The study plan is organized around three or four “fields” chosen with reference to the candidate’s dissertation proposal and future teaching plans. One might think of a field as an upper-level seminar in a particular area of study. We encourage students to include one interdisciplinary field, a field that seeks to combine study of the law with insights from a discipline other than law (such as economics, history, philosophy, or political science). The candidate’s work in each field is supervised by a scholar with expertise in the area; this scholar also constitutes a member of the candidate’s orals committee.

The Oral Examination and Dissertation

Once a student’s study plan has been approved, the student spends the rest of the first year in residence in Cambridge, pursuing the program of study set forth in the study plan. Before the end of the second year, the candidate sits for an oral examination before their overall faculty supervisor and field supervisors. The oral examination is a rigorous two-hour exercise that both tests the student’s mastery of the fields of study and provides guidance for proceeding to the next phase of work. After successfully completing this examination, the candidate moves on to the dissertation phase. Candidates normally complete and defend the dissertation within three years after the oral examination. Although candidates are not required to remain in residence in Cambridge after the first year of study, most in fact do so.

The S.J.D. Colloquium Series

In addition, S.J.D. candidates present their work on the dissertation twice during the program. Presentations are scheduled as part of the S.J.D. Colloquium Series, a weekly gathering of S.J.D. candidates, members of the Committee on Graduate Studies, and invited faculty. The first presentation is made after completion of the oral examination, and no later than the end of the third year of S.J.D. studies. At this stage, the S.J.D. candidate presents selected themes of their work in progress—whether research findings, methodological considerations or some additional challenge of their doctoral project. The second presentation, which offers a comprehensive treatment of the doctoral piece, is completed between six to twelve months prior to graduation. It is a formal presentation of the completed paper to academic colleagues, similar in form to a job talk or conference paper.