Division of Medical Sciences

The Division of Medical Sciences offers programs in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Immunology, Neuroscience, Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, and Virology. 

Satisfactory Progress

Satisfactory progress is required for Division of Medical Sciences students to continue enrollment in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Each program in the Division of Medical Sciences determines progress by considering the following: performance in courses, performance on their preliminary qualifying examination, demonstration of adequate research ability and/or level of improvement, acceptable ethical conduct, participation in other scholarly activities of the student's program, completing work prescribed by the dissertation advisor, and required activities of the Division of Medical Sciences.

Ordinarily, students are expected to complete their dissertation by the end of their 5th year. Under no circumstances will students be allowed to register beyond the 10th year in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Depending on progress, a student may be allowed to enroll in DMS between seven and ten years. If a student has withdrawn and wishes to apply for readmission, the information on doing so is here

Courses and Grades

The particular courses a student is required to take vary among programs. In addition to each program’s Core curriculum, some programs require that students take additional courses to ensure a broad background in basic science. GSAS states that the minimum standard for satisfactory work in the Graduate School is a B average in each academic year.


Laboratory rotations are required to ensure some breadth of research experience and exposure to opportunities in the Division of Medical Sciences and to give the student a trial period before making a commitment for dissertation work. Students are expected to have completed satisfactory rotations in at least two labs prior to full-time research; many students complete three rotations, which is strongly recommended. Any student who begins his or her dissertation work in a new lab (one in which they have not done a rotation) must consider the first three months as a rotation. This allows for evaluation by both the student and the mentor.

The Conduct of Science

Medical Sciences 300qc, The Conduct of Science, is a discussion forum on ethics and the proper conduct of science. It is designed to provide discussion among new and continuing students and faculty on matters of responsible scientific practice and ethics. All students in the Division of Medical Sciences must register to take this course when it is offered either in their first or second year. According to NIH Guidelines, students in their upper years, usually the fifth year or above, must take the Conduct of Sciences Refresher Course offered by the Division.

Laboratory and Radiation Safety Courses

All incoming DMS graduate students are required to take the Harvard University Laboratory and Radiation Safety Courses (scheduled during orientation) before beginning any type of lab work at Harvard. Students who have already completed these Harvard courses will not be required to repeat them. All students entering a dissertation lab not located at HMS must report to their department administrator’s office at that institution for additional information on training. In addition, DMS students who intend to do rotations or dissertation work at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) must take the MGH laboratory and radiation courses.

Credit for Work Done Elsewhere

The programs may excuse a student from some of the program course requirements in consideration of courses taken elsewhere. Only courses taken after the bachelor’s degree may be given official GSAS credit toward the PhD degree. Courses for official GSAS credit cannot appear on the student’s undergraduate transcript. The maximum allowable credit for courses taken elsewhere is eight four-credit courses.


Advising of students is multi-layered, distributed among advisors, committees, program heads, program administrators, DMS, and GSAS. The division provides all students with a set of academic guidelines that describes advising. In general, each first-year student is assigned a faculty advisor or committee to assist in course selection. Sometimes the advisor serves as the academic advisor to all first-year students in that program. This process continues until a student selects a dissertation laboratory and a dissertation advisory committee (DAC) is formed. In parallel with the dissertation advisor, the DAC monitors the student’s progress, offers assistance, and determines when the student can write and defend the dissertation.

Master of Arts (AM)

The programs in the Division of Medical Sciences offer PhD training and do not accept candidates for a master’s degree. Only under exceptional circumstances does the Division award a master’s degree. Eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis.


DMS encourages students to gain meaningful teaching experience as part of their graduate training. While DMS does not have its own teaching requirement, several individual programs include a term of teaching among the academic requirements. Students who have passed their preliminary qualifying examination and have met their program’s teaching requirement may undertake additional teaching or tutoring responsibilities, but only with permission of their dissertation research advisor and the Division of Medical Sciences. Applications to teach in a course must be submitted to the Division of Medical Sciences for approval. Students should not teach more than one quarter or one section of time in any given semester. Students 6th year and above are not allowed to teach.

If students plan to do any teaching during a semester the student must list “ DMS TIME: Teaching Fellow Related” on his/her Study Card. For example, if a student plans to teach one-quarter of his/her time, they must sign up for one “DMS TIME: Teaching Fellow Related”. The student’s dissertation advisor and program academic advisor or program head must sign the Study Card.

Preliminary Qualifying Examinations

Each student is required to pass a preliminary qualifying examination administered by the student’s program. This examination is given at the end of the first year or during the second year. The preliminary qualifying examination varies somewhat from program to program. The common format consists of a written proposal that is defended orally. Continued enrollment for any student who has not attained a clear pass after a second examination, if one had been approved, will be determined by a committee of faculty from the student’s program and the director of graduate studies for the Division of Medical Sciences. A student is not allowed to register for the fourth year if they have not passed the preliminary examination.


Selecting a Dissertation Advisor

Selection of a dissertation advisor is a multi-step process: Before a student may officially begin dissertation work in a laboratory, his or her selection of a dissertation advisor must be approved by the director of graduate studies for DMS. When a student decides on, and is accepted by, a dissertation advisor, they initiate this process by obtaining a Dissertation Advisor Declaration form (DAD) available from each program’s administrator.

Dissertation Advisory Committees (DAC)

An important policy of the Division of Medical Sciences is that each graduate student must establish a dissertation advisory committee (DAC) to provide timely and considered advising. The DAC helps set logical goals for the completion of the dissertation and monitors progress toward completion of degree requirements.

This method of dissertation advising works well—but only if the DAC meets and reports on a regular basis. Specific and stringent guidelines ensure that every student obtains maximal benefit from this system.

The student’s DAC should be formed in consultation with the student and the student’s dissertation advisor. The committee should have three members not including the advisor. The dissertation advisor serves as an ex officio member. Each student bears primary responsibility for setting up the DAC and ensuring that it meets in a timely fashion. The student should meet with his or her committee as soon as possible after the preliminary examination, but in all cases by the end of graduate year three and each twelve months thereafter. Beginning with the fourth graduate year, students will be allowed to register for the upcoming year(s) only if their DAC has met and filed a formal report within the past twelve months.

The DAC will meet as a group and report annually. Beginning no later than the end of the third year, the dissertation advisory committee will ask if the research project is heading towards a plausible dissertation. The dissertation advisory committee may decide to meet more than once a year for students in their 5th year and above, or in special circumstances.

The chair of the DAC is responsible for the preparation of the report, which should be signed by all committee members immediately upon conclusion of the meeting. The chair will submit the report to the program administrator, who distributes copies to the student, to the program advisory committee, and to the office of the Division of Medical Sciences. Immediate submission of the DAC report is important, not only so potential problems can be remedied quickly, but so the student’s registration status is not jeopardized.

Final DAC Meeting

In preparation for the final dissertation advisory committee meeting, the student must submit to the committee the general outline and content of the dissertation. The committee will discuss the general outline and content of the dissertation with the student. The final DAC report will specify what original writing the student must do. In some cases, all of the dissertation will be original writing. In other cases, when students use some collaborative, published work, the committee will define the additional required writing. (See Attributions to the Dissertation under The Dissertation Defense for detailed description of the use of reprints).

Students must have the final dissertation advisory committee report on file in the Division of Medical Sciences office stating that the student may begin writing the dissertation with approval of the general outline and content of dissertation prior to processing dissertation defense paperwork. (See your program administrator or go to the Division of Medical Sciences website for a form.) After receiving approval and permission from the committee to write the dissertation, students should then defend their dissertation no later than 4-6 months from the date of permission to write.

Preparation for the Dissertation Defense

The FAS Registrar specifies deadlines by which the dissertation must be submitted and the dissertation examination passed to receive the PhD diploma in November, March, or May of each academic year. A dissertation information packet is available in the division office specifying the steps to be taken when the student is ready to apply for the PhD degree and the various forms that need to be submitted. The information packet will be thoroughly reviewed with the student by a member of the division staff. The first step is completion of two forms: the “application for degree” form and the “program approval” form. The deadline for submitting these forms can be more than three months before the student expects to receive the degree, therefore students should schedule a packet meeting with DMS following their last DAC meeting to understand the dissertation timeline.

Students must have a DAC report on file in the Division of Medical Sciences office stating that the student may begin writing the dissertation prior to processing dissertation defense paperwork.

The dissertation must show original treatment of a fitting subject, contain a scholarly review of the pertinent literature, give evidence of independent research, and be clearly, logically, and carefully written. Students are expected to give a public seminar on their dissertation research.

Attributions to Dissertation

The PhD dissertation is expected to contain a substantial amount of independent research work of publishable quality. In addition to chapters of research, each dissertation must contain introduction and conclusion chapters that present the themes of the dissertation and summarize the accomplishments. In some cases the student has done all of the work in the dissertation; more often portions of the dissertation result from collaborative research. In all dissertations containing collaborative results, the dissertation should indicate concisely who contributed the work.

It is permissible for more than one student to include work from the same collaboration or publication as long as the required attributions are clear, justified, and complete.

Individual chapters can be that of published articles as long as there are comprehensive Introduction and Conclusion chapters written by the student. Use of actual reprints as a chapter is not permissible. A Word document of the published article must be used in place of a reprint as pages in the dissertation must be consecutively numbered. Any dissertation that varies significantly from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences guidelines or is not neat and readable is subject to required stylistic revision before acceptance by the University. (See Dissertations, available through the DMS office or online.)


The student and the student’s dissertation advisor must select at least four examining committee members: an examination chair, usually a member of the DAC, and three examiners. The Director of Graduate Studies of the Division of Medical Sciences and the head or designated faculty member of the candidate’s program will approve the members from a list submitted by the candidate and his or her advisor (“Proposed Dissertation Examiners” form). All proposed examiners must be the rank of assistant professor or higher at an academic institution. The chair of the exam committee as well as at least one examiner must be faculty from the Division of Medical Sciences; the dissertation advisor is not eligible to be an examiner or the chair, but usually attends the examination ex officio. To broaden the examination and enhance its significance, one member of the examination committee must be from outside Harvard University. Candidates are required to have one, but not more than one, member of the DAC become a member of the Examination Committee. The Examination Committee chair, who in many cases is the chair of the DAC, does not function as a voting examiner but may participate in the questioning of the candidate.  An alternate examiner may be requested by the student, the dissertation advisor, the program, or the Division.  If an alternate examiner is selected, the alternate must be available to attend the seminar and defense, and must receive and read a copy of the dissertation.

Past collaborators and co-authors are usually not appropriate to be examiners. It is the student’s responsibility to indicate any possible relationship of this kind. Faculty members who have collaborated with the student or the student’s advisor on the student’s area of research within the past five years may not serve on the exam committee. Faculty with whom the student has done a regular laboratory rotation in the process of selecting the dissertation laboratory are eligible if there are no other collaborations. Students may petition DMS to approve examiners whose collaboration with the student or advisor was not directly related to the dissertation research.