Biology, Organismic and Evolutionary

Requirements for the PhD Degree

Course Requirements

All first-year students are required to complete OEB399.

Students admitted in 2017 or later are required to have completed the equivalent of four graded four-credit courses by the end of their second year and six graded four-credit courses by the end of their third year. These courses must be taught by OEB faculty members or be courses in other departments approved by the OEB Graduate Committee. For the purposes of this requirement, a student can obtain course credit for an OEB course either by taking the course as a duly enrolled student or teaching in the course as a Teaching Fellow. A student can count a course once as a student and once (but not more than once) as a Teaching Fellow.  The grade minimum for graded courses is B-.

For some students, some 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 at (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 thesis. With advisor approval, students may opt to take courses beyond their four-course requirement. The grade minimum for graded courses is B-. 

Teaching Requirements

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

For students admitted in 2016 and later, the department requires three semesters of teaching for completion of the degree.  As part of your thesis 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 particularly intense field or laboratory work.

Students admitted prior to 2016 are required to teach two semesters for completion of the degree.

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 take 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 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.]
  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 thesis.
  4. After passing the qualifying examination, students must hold a yearly dissertation conference 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. The calendar of requirements as noted above may be interrupted by a single year of department-approved leave. In the special 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 her/his 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 acting as Chair, plus at least three other individuals.  A total of at least three members of the Committee must be members of the OEB faculty, including the Chair.  The membership of the Qualifying Examination Committee (as well as three exam topics proposed for the syllabi – see below) must be approved by the DGS before a student submits the qualifying examination notice to the Senior Academic Programs Administrator.

The student should arrange an examination time by contacting Committee members. Three hours should be allotted for the meeting, though examinations are often shorter in duration. Students should be aware that many faculty are not available to participate in examinations when school is 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 little and should be broad in scope. For each topic a syllabus outline for a course covering the topic should be prepared. Students must obtain approval from the DGS for the three exam topics for these syllabi. At least two of these courses should be modeled on a one-semester lecture course meeting two-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, though Committee members are not limited to asking questions directly relevant to the syllabi. Students are encouraged to meet with Committee members prior to the examination to discuss what sorts of questions 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 advisors on exact format.

The student is also expected to prepare a written thesis research proposal for the Qualifying Examination Committee.  There is no set format for the proposal, but the guidelines for NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants are one format that is often followed. Students should consult with their advisor about format. In the examination, students will present a brief oral presentation on the proposal, designed to last approximately 15-20 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 thesis proposal must be 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 postponement of the examination.  Materials may be distributed electronically, but when doing so, the student should inquire whether any Committee members would prefer to receive hard copies.

The Qualifying Examination Committee Chair (the advisor) 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 the student’s progress to date and to review the courses prescribed and confirm that they have been taken.  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 her/his oral presentation, after which Committee members will ask questions. Usually Committee members take turns, each asking several questions, with several rounds of questioning. It is up to the Chair whether s/he wishes to ask questions or simply moderate the proceedings.  At the end of the examination, students will again be asked to leave the room.

After the exam, students who passed the qualifying examination shall be promptly notified and approved for continuation of dissertation studies and advancement to doctoral candidacy. At least one term should ordinarily elapse between the qualifying examination and when the thesis 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 as well as by the Department and a final decision rendered.

Dissertation Conferences

Students have opportunities to review with their advisor and their Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) the thesis project, its progress and future potential in annual dissertation conferences. The first dissertation conference should be held no later than one year after the qualifying examination and at one-year intervals thereafter.  The student should orally 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 thesis will be acceptable.  It should also suggest improvement where needed.  The conference is not intended to be an oral "examination,” but the DAC must approve of 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, who will serve as Chair, and at least two other members. At least three members of the DAC must be faculty of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.  Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added after consultation with the advisor. The overall composition of the DAC must be approved by the DGS. The members of the DAC will, in most cases, also constitute the Thesis Examination Committee.  In some situations, it may not be possible to schedule a meeting at which all DAC members can attend. 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.

Thesis 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

The degree application is available online at the FAS Registrar's site; for degree deadline information click on “GSAS Graduation” in this site. You can also check this Academic Calendar page for updated deadline information. All applications must be approved by the DGS. Students should be aware that many Committee members are not available for thesis defenses when school is not in session.

2.  Thesis Presentation

The student must present the subject matter of the thesis in a seminar before a group open to the general biological community within the University and to which the members of the Thesis Examination Committee have been invited. This presentation shall take place prior to the thesis examination. The Senior Academic Programs Administrator should be notified of the public presentation one month prior to the date, so that a thesis seminar notice can be sent to the OEB faculty members and fellow students. A copy of the posted notice of the seminar will become part of the student's record.

3.  Thesis Abstract

Each PhD candidate will prepare an abstract of the thesis – ordinarily limited to one page, single-spaced – and submit it to the Senior Academic Programs Administrator two weeks prior to the date of the thesis examination. Copies of the thesis abstract will be distributed to the OEB community.

4.  Thesis Examination

The thesis is written under the supervision of the student's research advisor and should conform to the standards outlined in Dissertations.

The Thesis Examination Committee will consist of the student's advisor who will serve as Chair, and at least two other members suggested by the advisor.  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. 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 thesis examination four weeks prior to the date desired. The candidate must present to her/his Thesis Examination Committee copies of the thesis in final form two weeks prior to the defense date (not yet bound; students should ask Committee members whether they prefer digital or hard copies). An additional digital thesis copy must be submitted to the Senior Academic Programs Administrator two weeks prior to the thesis examination (this copy will be made available to OEB faculty who request it). Failure to provide copies of the thesis to the Thesis Examination Committee and to the Senior Academic Programs Administrator two weeks prior to the exam date will automatically lead to postponement of the thesis defense.

The student should observe the final dates for holding the thesis examination indicated in the Academic Calendar sent to all students at the beginning of each term. It is strongly suggested that the thesis examination be held at least one month prior to the date the thesis is due in the Registrar's Office to allow time for revisions; students should not expect Committee members to approve a thesis simply because a student has an impending deadline.

After examination, the Thesis Examination Committee will decide whether the candidate will pass, fail, or pass on the condition that specified changes be made to the thesis (because students are often required to do additional work before the thesis is passed, students should defend at least a month before degree filing or other deadlines). The Thesis 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 Committee on Graduate Students and Studies. The student's advisor should make such certification in writing to the DGS.

If at all possible, students should schedule their last dissertation conference one to three months prior to their thesis defense.  At this time, they should review the thesis fully, giving Committee members the opportunity to identify issues that should be rectified prior to presentation of the thesis.  Holding such a dissertation conference 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 greatly delay awarding of the degree.

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

5.  Filing the Thesis

Students should consult the GSAS thesis submission guidelines. Each candidate must be registered in GSAS, with required registration fee(s) paid, at the time the thesis is filed. These dates may vary and should be checked in the GSAS Policies available at registration each year. It is the student's responsibility to submit the thesis to the Registrar's Office in accordance with the desired graduation date deadline. The student should also submit a bound copy of the thesis to the OEB Senior Academic Programs Administrator.

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- and an overall grade point average of B or better.

2.  AM candidates must submit a written paper based on original research conducted under the guidance of a faculty member in the department.

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.  Six letter-graded four-credit courses of which at least four are courses within the department (or other courses approved by the DGS), with no grades lower than B- and an overall grade average of B or better. All prescribed courses are interpreted as being “within the department.” A student can obtain course credit for an OEB course either by taking the course as a duly enrolled student or teaching in the course as a Teaching Fellow. A student can count a course once as a student and once (but not more than once) as a Teaching Fellow.

2.  A written report based on original research conducted under the guidance of a faculty member in the department (the student’s thesis proposal will often satisfy this requirement).