Biology, Organismic and Evolutionary

Requirements for the PhD Degree

Course Requirements

All first-year students are required to complete OEB399.

All courses must be taught by OEB faculty members or be courses in other departments approved by the OEB Graduate Committee. The grade minimum for graded courses is B-. OEB students must maintain a grade point average of at least a B (3.00) each academic year; the grade point average is weighted for each course based on the number of course credits. For example, a grade received in a two-credit course proportionally impacts the grade point average compared to a four-credit course. 

Students admitted in 2017 or later are required to have completed four graded, four-credit courses by the end of their second year and a total of six graded, four-credit courses by the end of their third year. Students may fulfill up to two of these six total course requirements by teaching unique courses. For instance, a student who takes four graded courses and teaches two unique courses during their first three years would fulfill this requirement. A student can count a course once as a student and once (but not more than once) as a Teaching Fellow.  

For some students, specific courses may be prescribed by the OEB Graduate Committee. No student can be expected to have deep knowledge of all areas of modern biology, but all OEB graduate students are expected to have some familiarity with biological processes in (i) suborganismic (molecular and cellular biology), (ii) organismic (structure and function) and (iii) supraorganismic levels (evolution and ecology). Students are also expected to have competence in (iv) basic mathematics and statistics. Soon after their arrival at Harvard University, incoming students will meet with their advisor and members of the OEB Graduate Committee to review the student’s previous coursework, identify any gaps in basic knowledge, and develop a plan of study. If gaps are identified in any of the basic areas (i)–(iv), this plan of study will include prescribed courses to be completed by the end of the student’s second year with a grade of B- or better. All prescribed courses count toward the requirement for six graded four-credit courses. 

Students admitted prior to 2017 are required to have completed any prescribed courses by the time of their qualifying examination and a minimum of four graded courses by the time they defend their dissertation. With advisor approval, students may opt to take courses beyond their four-course requirement. The grade minimum for graded courses is B-. OEB students must maintain a grade point average of at least a B (3.00) each academic year; the grade point average is weighted for each course based on the number of course credits. For example, a grade received in a two-credit course proportionally impacts the grade point average compared to a four-credit course. 

Pedagogical Requirements

Teaching in the first year is not allowed per GSAS policy.

For students admitted in 2016 and later, the department requires at least three teaching fellow assignments for completion of the degree. Students must teach at least two different courses over at least two different terms. As part of your dissertation proposal for the qualifying examination, you should develop a teaching plan that will help you balance factors, including when courses of interest are being offered and when you might have a particularly intense field or laboratory work. 

Students admitted prior to 2016 are required to complete two teaching fellow assignments to meet the pedagogical requirement. 

Satisfactory Progress Requirements

All students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences must be making satisfactory progress in order to be eligible for any type of financial aid. The following provisions are the interpretation of satisfactory progress for graduate students in OEB.

  1. During the first two years of graduate study, any student who is permitted to register is considered to be making satisfactory progress. OEB students are required to enroll and participate in OEB 399 in their first year.
  2. Students admitted in 2017 and later must have completed four letter-graded courses (including all prescribed courses) and have taken the qualifying examination by the end of the second year. Students admitted before 2017 are simply required to complete their prescribed courses and their qualifying examination by the end of the second year. Students can petition the OEB Graduate Committee to have their qualifying examination deferred until their third year. Such a petition takes the form of a written request to the director of graduate studies (DGS), endorsed by your advisor, and submitted during the second year. A deferral, if granted by the OEB Graduate Committee, does not change the requirement that a student who has not passed the qualifying examination by the end of their third year will be expected to withdraw. OEB students must maintain a grade point average of at least a B (3.00) each academic year; the grade point average is weighted for each course based on the number of course credits. For example, a grade received in a two-credit course proportionally impacts the grade point average compared to a four-credit course.
  3. Students admitted in 2017 and later must have passed the qualifying examination and completed six letter-graded courses by the end of the third year. Students admitted before 2017 must complete four letter-graded courses by the time they defend their dissertation.
  4. After passing the qualifying examination, students must hold a yearly dissertation advisory committee meeting and be judged to be making satisfactory progress.
  5. Students in their fourth year must participate in the G4 symposium in the spring.
  6. A student who is judged not to be making satisfactory progress may, with department endorsement, be placed on grace status for up to one year. Students on grace status remain eligible for financial aid during this period but cannot hold teaching appointments. At the end of the grace period, the student must have rectified the deficiency and be in compliance with all other established criteria in order to be considered to be making satisfactory progress. A student is ordinarily allowed only one period of grace.
  7. As noted above, the calendar of requirements may be interrupted by a single year of department-approved leave. In the particular case of a student who wishes to obtain a professional degree, the approved leave period can be extended beyond a single year.

Qualifying Examination

The qualifying examination is an oral examination conducted to assess whether the student has a well-designed research plan for their dissertation and to examine the student’s knowledge in broad areas of organismic and evolutionary biology. Students are expected to have taken the qualifying examination before the end of the second year of graduate study (exceptions may be granted by petition to the OEB Graduate Committee) and, at the very latest, to have passed the examination before the end of the third year of graduate study.

The qualifying examination committee consists of the student’s advisor and at least three other individuals. At least three committee members, including the chair,  must be members of the OEB faculty. Students should choose their committee chair (any OEB faculty committee member except their advisor) in consultation with their advisor. They should invite the chair to serve in that capacity when they invite them to serve on the committee. Students must obtain DGS approval of their qualifying examination committee and chair designation prior to submitting a notice of their examination to the senior academic programs administrator.

Students contact their committee to arrange an examination date and time. Three hours must be allotted for the meeting. Students should be aware that many faculty members may not be available when classes are not in session. Students are advised to remind faculty of the time and place of the meeting several days before the examination.

During the exam, students will be tested on three broad topics pertinent to, but not restricted to, the specific topic of the proposed or ongoing dissertation studies. Topics should overlap a little and should be broad in scope. Students must obtain approval from the DGS for the three exam topics for these syllabi. After DGS approval, the student prepares a course syllabus outline for each topic. At least two of these courses should be modeled on a one-term lecture course meeting two to three times a week and addressing a broad area of biological knowledge. One course can be an advanced-level seminar on a more specialized topic. These syllabi will serve as a guide for the qualifying examination committee members to begin asking questions. However, committee members are not limited to asking questions directly relevant to the syllabi. Students are encouraged to meet with committee members before the examination to discuss questions that might be asked and to receive advice and recommendations on specific material that may be worth reviewing. There are no set guidelines on syllabus format; they should be modeled after those commonly distributed at the beginning of OEB courses. Students should consult with their advisor on the format.

The student is also expected to prepare a written dissertation research proposal for the qualifying examination committee.  Students should consult with their advisor about the format. In the examination, students will present a brief oral presentation on the proposal, designed to last approximately 15 to 20 minutes, not counting questions (recalling that committee members will have read the proposal so that it is neither necessary nor desirable to review everything in it).

The syllabi and dissertation proposal must be electronically distributed to qualifying examination committee members and the senior academic programs administrator at least two weeks before the examination. Failure to do so will result in the postponement of the examination.  

The qualifying examination committee chair will be in charge of the examination. At the outset, the student will be asked to leave the room so that the committee can discuss progress to date and ensure course prescriptions have been fulfilled. The advisor will then be asked to leave the room for the student to talk with the other committee members. After the advisor’s return, the student will then make their oral presentation, after which committee members will ask questions. Usually, committee members take turns, each asking several questions, with several rounds of questioning. At the end of the examination, students will again be asked to leave the room.

After the exam, students who passed the qualifying examination will be promptly notified and approved for the continuation of dissertation studies and advancement to doctoral candidacy. At least one term should ordinarily elapse between the qualifying examination and when the dissertation examination can be held. The qualifying examination committee may pass the student but prescribe additional coursework or other additional work (such as writing a review paper on a particular topic). Completion of this prescribed work is required before the next dissertation advisory committee meeting for the student to be judged at that time as making satisfactory progress.

If the qualifying examination reveals serious deficiencies, the committee may decide: (1) that the student be reexamined at a later date (but not later than the end of the G3 year) or (2) that the student not be admitted to candidacy for the doctoral degree. In the latter case, the committee will recommend that further candidacy be terminated not later than the end of the ongoing academic year. The recommendation to terminate must be reviewed and approved by the OEB graduate committee. The student, together with the advisor, may appeal any such decision by submitting to the OEB graduate committee written arguments for a reversal of the decision to terminate. Under such circumstances, the case will be further reviewed by the OEB graduate committee and the department before a final decision is rendered.

Dissertation Advisory Committee Meetings

Students have opportunities to review their dissertation project, its progress, and future potential with their dissertation advisory committee (DAC) in annual DAC meetings.  The first DAC meeting should be held no later than one year after the qualifying examination and at one-year (or shorter) intervals thereafter. The student should present a brief account of any results obtained and plans for additional research. The DAC should indicate to the student whether it anticipates that the dissertation will be acceptable. It should also suggest improvement where needed. The DAC meeting is not intended to be an oral "examination,” but the DAC must approve the student’s progress and plans. If the DAC does not approve, then the student will be considered not to be making satisfactory progress, and a plan must be prepared to return to good standing within six months. Failure to do so may lead the DAC to recommend dismissal from the graduate program. Students more than six months late in holding a DAC meeting will automatically be considered not to be making satisfactory progress.

The DAC will consist of the student’s advisor and at least two other members. At least three members of the DAC must be OEB faculty. Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added after consultation with the advisor. Students should choose their DAC chair (any OEB faculty committee member except their advisor) in consultation with their advisor when they are assembling their DAC. The overall composition of the DAC must be approved by the DGS. The members of the DAC will, in most cases, also constitute the dissertation examination committee. In some situations, scheduling a meeting that all DAC members can attend may not be possible. With permission of the advisor and the DGS, one DAC member may be absent from the meeting, as long as arrangements are made for the student to meet separately with that DAC member. 

Dissertation Presentation and Examination

All graduate students in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology come under the jurisdiction of the OEB graduate committee. The DGS is authorized to approve all examination committees appointed for doctoral candidates.

1.  Application for the PhD Degree

Information on the degree application is available on the GSAS website. Students can find updated degree applications on the GSAS Degree Calendar and Academic Calendar pages. All applications must be approved by the DGS. Students should be aware that many committee members are not available for dissertation defenses when courses are not in session.

2.  Dissertation Presentation

The student must present the subject matter of the dissertation in a seminar open to the community and to which the members of the dissertation examination committee have been invited. This presentation shall take place prior to the dissertation examination. The senior academic programs administrator will send out notice of the public presentation to the OEB community two weeks prior to the date. A copy of the posted notice of the seminar will become part of the student's record.

3.  Dissertation Abstract

Each PhD candidate will prepare an abstract of the dissertation—ordinarily limited to one page, single-spaced—and submit it to the senior academic programs administrator two weeks prior to the date of the dissertation examination. Copies of the dissertation abstract will be distributed to the OEB community.

4.  Dissertation Examination

The dissertation is written under the supervision of the student's research advisor and should conform to the standards outlined in the GSAS policy page on Dissertations.

The Dissertation Examination Committee will consist of the student’s advisor and at least two other members. At least three members of the committee must be members of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added by the advisor. As with the DAC, the committee chair must be an OEB faculty member who is not the student's advisor. The overall composition of the committee must be approved by the DGS. 

The senior academic programs administrator and the DGS must be notified of the time and location of the dissertation examination at least four weeks prior to the date desired. The candidate must electronically distribute to their dissertation examination committee and the student academic programs administrator their dissertation in final form at least 10 business days prior to the defense dateFailure to electronically distribute the finalized dissertation to the dissertation examination committee and the senior academic programs administrator 10 business days prior to the exam date will automatically lead to postponement of the dissertation defense.

The student should observe the final dates for holding the dissertation examination indicated in the Academic Calendar posted on the GSAS website. It is strongly suggested that the dissertation examination be held at least one month prior to the dissertation electronic submission deadline to allow time for revisions; students should not expect committee members to approve a dissertation because a student has an impending deadline.

After examination, the dissertation examination committee will decide whether the candidate will pass, fail, or pass on the condition that specified changes be made to the dissertation (because students are often required to do additional work before the dissertation is passed, we recommend that students defend two to four weeks before degree filing or other deadlines). The dissertation examination committee may delegate to its chair the responsibility for seeing that such changes are made in a satisfactory manner before the award of the degree is recommended to the department by the graduate committee. The student's advisor should make such certification in writing to the DGS.

If possible, students should schedule their last DAC meeting one to three months before their dissertation defense. At this time, they should review the dissertation thoroughly, allowing committee members to identify issues that should be rectified prior to the presentation of the dissertation. Holding such a DAC meeting is the best way to ensure that problems are identified prior to the defense, thus minimizing the chance that the committee will require substantial additional work that may delay awarding of the degree.

In rare cases, it may be possible to hold the dissertation exam with one committee member absent. Arrangements must be made for that committee member to confer with the advisor prior to the dissertation being approved. Approval for such an arrangement must come from the DGS and only will be granted under unusual circumstances.

5.  Filing the Dissertation 

Students should consult the GSAS dissertation submission guidelines. Each candidate must be registered in GSAS, with the required registration fee(s) paid, at the time the dissertation is filed, as summarized on the GSAS Application for Degree page. It is the student's responsibility to electronically via ProQuest ETD in accordance with the desired graduation date deadline.

Requirements for the AM Degree

The Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology does not admit students whose sole purpose is to study for the Master of Arts (AM) degree.

However, graduate students admitted to any PhD program at Harvard University or OEB graduate students admitted prior to 2017 may apply for the AM degree if they fulfill the following requirements:

1.  Six letter-graded four-credit courses in the department (or other courses approved by the DGS), with no grades lower than B-. Students must maintain a grade point average of at least a B (3.00) each academic year; the grade point average is weighted for each course based on the number of course credits. For example, a grade received in a two-credit course proportionally impacts the grade point average compared to a four-credit course.  

2.  AM candidates must submit a written paper based on original research conducted under the guidance of a faculty member in the department. Both the student's advisor and the DGS must send the senior academic programs administrator their written approval of the paper.

OEB graduate students admitted in 2017 and later may also apply to be awarded the AM degree. The requirements for students within the department are:

1.  Four graded four-credit courses by the end of their second year. In addition, students must either have completed a total of six graded four-credit courses by the end of their third year, or have completed four graded four-credit courses and acted as a Teaching Fellow in two additional courses by the end of their third year. All courses must be taught by OEB faculty members or be courses in other departments approved by the OEB graduate committee. The grade minimum for graded courses is B-. Students must maintain a grade point average of at least a B (3.00) each academic year; the grade point average is weighted for each course based on the number of course credits. For example, a grade received in a two-credit course proportionally impacts the grade point average compared to a four-credit course.  A student can count a course once as a student and once (but not more than once) as a Teaching Fellow.  All prescribed courses count toward the requirement for six graded four-credit courses.

2.  A written report based on original research conducted under the guidance of a faculty member in the department (the student’s dissertation proposal will often satisfy this requirement). The student's advisor and the DGS must send the senior academic programs administrator their written approval of the report.