Degree Programs

Chemistry and Chemical Biology

General Information

The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology offers a program of study leading to the degree of doctor of philosophy in chemistry, in the special fields of biological, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry. A PhD program in chemical physics is also available.

The entering graduate student at Harvard joins an active research center as a co-worker at the start of or during the student’s second term. The department’s faculty and its affiliated student scientists share a rich training in the unique tools of chemical inquiry and commitment to scientific investigation at the molecular level. Doctoral research, based on the student’s own interests and those of the chosen faculty supervisor, is concerned with problems of intrinsic interest and importance at the frontiers of chemical science. The student joins a community composed of about 180 graduate students, over 200 postdoctoral fellows, and 32 faculty members.

Regular seminars are held by most faculty members for their research groups. The exchange of views, the solution of problems, and the discussion of recent developments have made this setting an important component of the graduate program. Colloquia in special fields of chemistry and frequent lectures by visiting chemists are continual catalysts for creative research. Considerable opportunity exists for interaction with other departments and groups inside Harvard University, at MIT, and at other research centers in the Boston area.

Departmental research facilities are located in six buildings on the historic main Harvard campus: Mallinckrodt, Conant, Converse, Naito, Bauer, and the Mallinckrodt/Hoffman "Link." These laboratories are adjacent to the Departments of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Physics, Earth and Planetary Sciences, the Centers for Systems Biology and Brain Science, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Also nearby is the Science Center, housing Mathematics, Statistics, and History of Science, but devoted primarily to undergraduate teaching facilities. In addition to the faculty research labs, the Chemistry and Chemical Biology complex contains facilities for analytical instrumentation (NMR, Mass Spectrometry, X-ray Crystallography, X-ray Diffractometry), a library, and computer workstations for molecular modeling and chemical information retrieval. A machine shop, electronics shop, and facilities for protein structure determination, materials synthesis, nanofabrication, and imaging are available in adjacent laboratories. Nearly all CCB faculty are affiliated with multiple cross-departmental programs and research centers at Harvard.

Admission

Applications for admission to study for the PhD degree in chemistry are accepted from students who have received the bachelor’s degree or have had equivalent preparation. These applications should be initiated during the fall of the year preceding the September when admission is desired. Normally, students are admitted only for September. The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology admits students with a record of classroom and laboratory training in biological, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. We expect students to possess a strong enough grounding in chemistry to perform well on the required Chemistry GRE subject exam, and to be thoughtful enough about the discipline of chemistry to communicate their desire to pursue doctoral research in our department.

Applicants must take the GRE general and chemistry examinations. These must be taken no later than November of the year prior to admission and preferably earlier so that score reports arrive by the December application deadline. TOEFL is required of all foreign applicants other than those whose native language is English.

We encourage prospective students to submit their applications online whenever possible at the GSAS Admissions website. We also ask the student’s recommenders to submit their letters online whenever possible. The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology is a participant in Harvard Integrated Life Sciences (HILS).

Financial Support

The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology meets the financial needs of its graduate students through department scholarships, department fellowships, teaching fellowships, research assistantships, and independent outside fellowships. Financial support is awarded on a 12-month basis, enabling students to pursue their research throughout the year. Tuition support is provided to all graduate students in good standing.

Generally, students in their first year are supported by a departmental fellowship that covers tuition and living expenses. Beginning in the second semester, all students are expected to teach discussion or laboratory sections half-time for two semesters. Most students teach in the spring term of their first year and during one term of the second year (usually the fall). With their advisor’s approval, a student may also teach in subsequent years. Teaching fellowships are term-long jobs typically available on a quarter-time or half-time basis. A half-time assignment involves an average of twenty hours per week of preparation and instruction.

Research assistantships provide an opportunity for students to devote more time to research. The twelve-month research assistantship is the major vehicle for student support within a research group. Research assistantships typically start in July after the student has completed the first year of the graduate program.

Independent fellowships are outside awards (e.g., NSF, NDSEG, DOE) covering a significant portion of a student’s stipend and tuition throughout his or her tenure in the PhD program. Information on major graduate fellowships is available online, or can be obtained by writing to the respective agencies directly, or by inquiring at your college career counseling office.

Departmental Requirements

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Although the curriculum for this degree includes certain requirements in formal coursework (see below), the majority of the graduate student’s time and energy will be devoted to original investigations in a chosen field of research. Students have many opportunities to learn about current research programs, prior to embarking upon research, both during rotations and through informal discussions with faculty and students. Students should join a research group by June 30th of their first year. Once a student joins a research group, the faculty member of that group becomes the student’s advisor.

Qualifying Requirements. Students must pass four advanced half-courses in chemistry and/or related fields (e.g., biochemistry, physics, etc.) with average grades of B or higher. Grades of B- will count as a pass if balanced by a B+ or better on a one-for-one basis. An advanced course is one designated in the announcement of courses as "for undergraduates and graduates" or "primarily for graduates" with the exception of the following courses that cannot be used for credit toward the PhD degree in Chemistry: Chemistry 100r, 135, 145, 160, and 165. Courses numbered 300 or above do not count toward this requirement.

All entering graduate students (G1s) are required to take "Chemistry 301hf. Scientific Teaching and Communication: Practicum" in their first year. This course will teach graduate students how to communicate scientific concepts in the classroom and help prepare them for their teaching responsibilities that begin in the spring term of the first year.

During orientation, incoming students will formulate a plan of study in consultation with a member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC). The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original plan of study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

Students normally satisfy the letter-graded course requirements in the first two years of graduate studies. In consultation with the CAC, special arrangements may also be made in the following circumstances:

(a) Advanced courses passed with honor grades by a Harvard undergraduate, who is subsequently admitted to the Graduate School, may be counted in fulfillment of the departmental course requirement. They may be counted for residence requirements only if in excess of the courses required for the AB degree (see The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook).

(b) Students who have taken elsewhere the equivalent of a Harvard advanced course may, by arrangement with the Curriculum Advising Committee, meet the requirement with respect to that course without enrollment by fulfilling such requirements as the instructor in the course stipulates. (See The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook, Credit for Work Done Elsewhere.)

Rotations. Entering graduate students (G1s) are required to participate in three 4-week rotations in different laboratories, OR they may conduct one 8-week and one 4-week rotation in two different laboratories. The goal of the rotations is to broaden a student’s scientific perspective by exposure to the science and environment of different laboratories. Students may rotate with faculty outside the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department. Anyone wishing to do a rotation in an outside department is encouraged to contact the outside faculty member directly to discuss the possibility of a rotation.

Advising. During orientation, each incoming student meets with an assigned member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC) to formulate a Plan of Study. The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses, and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original Plan of Study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

During rotations, once in a lab, each rotation student will be assigned a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor. Mentors are a valuable resource for rotation students, providing guidance and advice regarding lab practices and policies.

Students should enter a research group by June 30th of their first year. Once a student joins a research group, the faculty member of that group becomes the student’s advisor. If a student subsequently finds that another area of research more closely matches his or her interests, the student should consult with the director of graduate studies.

At the end of their first year, students are expected to form, in consultation with the director of graduate studies, their Graduate Advising Committee (GAC). The GAC consists of the student’s advisor and two other faculty members, one of whom must be a CCB faculty member. Students report their progress to the GAC at least once per year, beginning in their G2 year. The GAC may require more frequent meetings depending on the student's progress, especially as the dissertation defense nears. Students are expected to present and defend an independent proposal anytime between the first semester of their 2nd year and the end of their 4th year in the presence of their GAC. Any one of the G2, G3, or G4 GAC committee meetings can serve as the independent research proposal meeting. The objective of these meetings is to promote the timely completion of the degree requirements, to foster (non-advisor) faculty-student interactions, and to provide career counseling.

Students are encouraged to consult with the director of graduate studies on any issues that affect graduate student life.

Oral Examinations. Students are expected to present and defend an independent research proposal anytime between the first semester of their 2nd year up to the end of their 4th year (June 30th). Any one of the G2, G3, or G4 GAC committee meetings can serve as the independent research proposal meeting. Students are required to choose topics that are distinct from their Ph.D. research, and the final topic should be arrived at in consultation with their advisor. The student with his/her advisor will decide when to present the independent proposal.

Completing an independent research proposal will expand a student's base scientific knowledge and provide a formal exercise in identifying research projects in interesting and promising areas of research. The objectives of the independent research proposal program are:

  1. To provide students the opportunity to:
    1. think deeply and creatively about a significant research problem and propose how that problem can be addressed experimentally.
    2. develop writing skills by preparing a clear and concise scientific document.
    3. develop oral presentation skills and engage in scientific discourse.
  2. To provide students with a forum to receive constructive, critical feedback from faculty members.

The oral exam is expected to be 30 to 60 minutes in duration. During the presentation, students should be prepared to answer questions concerning the proposal topic as well as allied areas. Questions of a more general nature or of topical interest (e.g. recent CCB seminars) may also be asked. At the end of the independent research proposal presentation, there will be a short discussion on research progress to date.

Language. A thorough command of oral and written English is required. Incoming PhD students who are non-native speakers of English and who have not received their undergraduate degree from an English-speaking institution will have their English proficiency determined by their TOEFL iBT score. Students who are not deemed proficient will be required to take courses approved by GSAS to improve their proficiency as part of their preparation for teaching and professional development. Students will not be allowed to teach until they are deemed proficient.

Teaching. All students are expected to teach discussion or laboratory sections half-time for two terms. Most students teach in the spring term of their first year and during one term of the second year (usually the fall). With their advisor’s approval, a student may also teach in subsequent years.

Satisfactory Progress. Continuation in the degree program is contingent on the following: (1) satisfactory completion of required coursework, (2) successful presentation and defense of a research proposal in accordance with policy set by the Graduate Advising Committee (GAC), (3) admission to a research group by June 30th of the first year, and (4) satisfactory progress in 300-level research courses.

Dissertation. The preparation of a satisfactory dissertation normally requires at least four years of full-time research. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described online in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

All students are expected to provide a public presentation of their PhD research. The dissertation defense will be comprised of two parts: 1) a public presentation of the student’s PhD research to which members of the CCB community will be invited, followed by 2) the private PhD dissertation defense before the dissertation defense committee (generally the GAC). One of the readers must be a faculty member of the department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (generally the advisor). Two members of the committee must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Faculty members from other schools at Harvard who hold appointments on GSAS degree committees as well as FAS emeriti and research professors may serve as members of the dissertation committee. Faculty of institutions outside of Harvard may serve as a member of the dissertation committee providing the requirement of two readers from FAS (one being a CCB faculty member, generally the advisor) is met.

Master of Arts (AM)

The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology does not grant terminal AM degrees. However, upon completion of certain requirements, students in the Chemistry PhD program may apply for the AM degree. The requirements for this degree are:

Residence. A minimum of one year of full-time study is required.

Program of Study. The student must pass eight advanced half-courses diversified among the fields of chemistry with average grades of B or higher. Grades of B- will count as a pass if balanced by a B+ or better on a one-for-one basis. Typically, four of the half-courses are classroom work, and the remaining four are research courses. Students will formulate a plan of study in consultation with a member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC). The CAC may withhold approval for courses deemed inappropriate for the AM degree in Chemistry.

Approval of the application for the AM degree is contingent upon the satisfactory completion of the required eight half-courses. Proper documentation of passing grades on applicable bracketed courses (i.e., GSAS transcripts) must be received by the department office before approval of the AM degree is granted.

Thesis. None required.

Recent PhD Dissertations

  • James Birrell, "I. Enantioselective Acylation of Silyl Ketene Acetals through Fluoride Anion-Binding Catalysis II. Development of a Practical Method for the Synthesis of Highly Enantioenriched trans-1,2 Amino Alcohols" (Jacobsen Group)
  • Emily Eames, "Magnetism, Reactivity and Metal Ion Lability in Trigonal Iron Clusters" (Betley Group)
  • Stephen Jensen, "The Roles of Interstitial and Surface Defects on Oxidation and Reduction Reactions on Titania" (Friend Group)
  • Theresa Liang, "Silver-Mediated Trifluoromethoxylation of Aryl Nucleophiles and Synthesis of 3-Deoxy-3-fluoromorphine" (Ritter and Liu Groups)
  • Brian Liau, "Total Syntheses of Fastigiatine and the Hibarimicin Aglycons" (Shair Group)
  • Anna Mari Lone, "The Biochemistry and Physiology of Peptidases" (Saghatelian Group)
  • Sijia Lu, "Label-Free Optical Imaging of Chromophores and Genome Analysis at the Single Cell Level" (Xie Group)
  • Meghan Thurlow, "Free Radicals and Reactive Intermediates in the Boundary Layer: Development and Deployment of Solid-State Laser Based Instrumentation to Measure Part Per Trillion Mixing Ratios of Iodine Monoxide and Glyoxal in Situ" (Anderson Group)
  • Peter Wright, "Multiplicative Expansion of the Pool of Fully Synthetic Tetracycline Antibiotics" (Myers Group)
  • Jiabin Xu, "Computer Simulations of Protein Folding and Evolution" (Shakhnovich Group)
  • Yuan Yuan, "Small-molecule Modulators of Pancreatic Ductal Cells: Hitone Methyltransferases and β-Cell Transdifferentiation" (Schreiber Group)
  • Lauren Zarzar, "Dynamic Hybrid Materials: Hydrogel Actuators and Catalytic Microsystems" (Aizenberg Group)

Faculty List