The Department of the Classics has been at the forefront of graduate education in Classics for well over a century. It offers a variety of approaches, emphasizing a wide range of knowledge and skills rather than a narrow early specialization. The department offers doctoral degrees in ancient history, Byzantine Greek, classical archaeology, classical philology, classical philosophy, medieval Latin, and modern Greek. All candidates admitted to the PhD programs are expected to enter with competence in the pertinent languages, ancient and modern, on which they will build in the course of their graduate study.
Though the department views the training of future university teachers as a major part of its mandate, its primary concern is to foster as thorough an expertise as possible in those classical, medieval, and modern fields which are centered on Greek and Latin language and literature. For this reason, the department emphasizes the acquisition not only of knowledge, but also of skills—in teaching, in analysis, in research—which will enable its graduates to find careers both within and outside the traditional fields. Great emphasis is laid in the process of graduate admission on the adaptability of students to a flexible job market, and the department assists the career development of its students by placement advice and other practical assistance with the application process.
The department encourages students to develop diverse interests. For example, in working towards a degree in classical philology, students may come to emphasize one language over the other and may explore interests in archaeology, history and prehistory, law, linguistics, literary criticism, the medieval world both western and eastern, mythography, philology, philosophy, or religion. Students in other tracks are similarly encouraged to diversify their interests. The department also offers specialized training in such disciplines as papyrology, epigraphy, palaeography, and numismatics. The resources of other Harvard departments are open to those interested in other ancient languages and scripts, the history of science, the relations of the Greeks and the Romans with other ancient cultures, and the reception of classical culture in subsequent periods. Students of ancient history and classical archaeology are required to spend time abroad, and funding is available to support summer travel for research purposes for students in all the PhD tracks.
Ideally, the doctoral program is conceived as lasting six years, divided into three segments.
- The first two years, defined as "academic residence" for administrative purposes, are largely devoted to seminars, to lecture/reading courses, and to independent reading in preparation for the General Examinations (normally taken at the end of the second year). While all these formats are designed to broaden experience of the languages and literature needed for the degree, the seminars form the core of the department's program of graduate education. Summers are often spent in reading to prepare for examinations.
- In the third year, students prepare for their special examinations in three chosen categories, and begin to gain experience of teaching, which the department regards as an essential part of graduate preparation.
- In the fourth and fifth years, students continue to teach, but otherwise work towards the completion of the degree, especially the writing of the dissertation. Students of ancient history and classical archaeology are required to spend time abroad.
- For the final year, they may also apply for a one-year dissertation completion fellowship from the Graduate School (see also "Funding for Graduate Students").
The department's graduate program is chiefly designed to prepare students for the degree of doctor of philosophy (PhD); the department will not admit applicants for the degree of master of arts (AM) only. However, any student who has completed with honor two years of full-time study (16 applicable courses) will qualify for the degree of AM in the appropriate area as a level of attainment, which the department will normally recommend upon application by the student. No examinations beyond those required in the courses are mandated. Prerequisites are the same as for the PhD.