Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The graduate program in physics accepts applications only for the PhD degree. Although many graduate students earn a continuing AM (Master of Arts) degree along the way to completing their PhDs, the department does not accept applications specifically for terminal AM degrees.
Incoming graduate students are not technically candidates for the PhD until they have completed a set of candidacy requirements. Before obtaining the PhD, students must therefore satisfy two sets of requirements—those for official doctoral candidacy, and those for the PhD degree itself.
Although no two PhD students follow precisely the same path, students should keep in mind the following general timeline, with details to be explained in later sections:
- During both semesters of the first year, students’ tuition, fees, and stipends are covered by either Harvard’s Purcell fellowship or outside sources of funding, and students should devote their attention to coursework and getting acquainted with research groups. All students should consult regularly with their individually assigned academic advisors in planning a program of study and research.
- In the spring term of the first year, as part of their training in teaching and presentation skills, students are required to enroll in Physics 302A: Teaching and Communicating Physics.
- In the summer after the first year, students arrange for their own funding. For those without external fellowships, options include research assistantships (RAs) with research groups, teaching fellowships (TFs) with summer courses, or attending summer schools and conferences.
- For students in their second year who do not have an external fellowship, the department covers tuition and fees but not salaries. Therefore, starting in the second year, a student without outside funding should plan on securing either a research assistantship (RA) or a teaching fellowship (TF) each semester. Students typically use their second year to complete their required coursework and transition into a research group.
- During the second year, students should make sure to complete most of their required course requirements. They should also organize a three-member faculty committee—ideally chaired by their prospective thesis advisor—and take the qualifying oral examination. After completion of the examination and acceptance by a thesis advisor, the student has fulfilled the requirements for official candidacy for the PhD degree.
- For students in their third and later years who do not have an external fellowship, tuition and fees as well as salary are covered by research assistantships (RAs) or teaching fellowships (TFs).
- Once the student has completed the requirements for candidacy—ideally by the end of the second year but certainly before the end of the third year—the student should proceed with a research program that eventually culminates in a thesis. Toward the end of each year, following the qualifying exam or after the third year (whichever comes first), students should submit annual progress reports to their faculty committees for review.
- After joining a research group, students typically receive their summer funding by working in a research assistantship (RA) with that group.
- Each student is required to serve as a teaching fellow (TF) at least one fall or spring semester during the course of the PhD program. Note that to fulfill this requirement, the TF position should consist of at least 15 hours per week (3/8-time) and involve a teaching component and not merely grading.
- After writing a thesis under the guidance of a thesis advisor, typically by the end of the fifth or sixth year, the student presents the thesis to a dissertation committee of three faculty members in a final dissertation defense. Once the completed thesis is submitted, the student has fulfilled the requirements for the doctoral degree.
The First Two Years
The department assigns each incoming graduate student a faculty academic advisor to help the student make decisions about coursework and research opportunities. Each student is free to choose a new advisor at any subsequent time, but should inform the graduate program administrator of such a change after obtaining the new advisor’s consent. In particular, by the end of the second year, the student should choose an advisor who will supervise the student’s thesis.
In planning a program, students should study the catalogue of Courses of Instruction offered by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as the description in the Programs of Study. After drawing up a tentative program, students should discuss it with their faculty advisors. Students are also welcome to discuss their plans at any time with the Director of Graduate Studies.
Students who propose to present theses in experimental fields should demonstrate promise in experimental work and a satisfactory understanding of theoretical physics. Applicants for candidacy in theoretical physics should demonstrate strength in courses of a mathematical nature and a satisfactory acquaintance with experimental aspects of physics. Detailed course requirements are given below under “Program of Study.” Note that award of the continuing AM degree does not automatically qualify the student as a candidate for the PhD.
Program of Study (Credit and Course Requirements)
Each student is required to accumulate a total of sixteen four-credit courses of credit, which can include any combination of 200- or 300-level Harvard courses in physics and related fields, graduate-level courses taken by official cross-registration at MIT, and units of Physics 300r (research time) or Physics 300c (course time). These sixteen four-credit courses may overlap with some of the eight required four-credit courses for the optional continuing AM degree.
In fulfilling this requirement, students must obtain grades of B- or better in eight four-credit courses specified as follows:
- Four mandatory core courses: Four mandatory core courses: Physics 251A or a qualifying alternative from the department's official list, and Physics 251B, and Physics 232 or Applied Physics 216 or Engineering Sciences 273, and Physics 262 or Applied Physics 284.
- Four elective courses: Four additional four-credit courses drawn from the department's official list, with at most two four-credit courses in any one field. Note: Not all courses listed are given every year and course offerings, numbers, and contents sometimes change. Students therefore should confer with their advisors or with the chair of the Committee on Higher Degrees about their program of study.
Course Descriptions: Courses of Instruction
Other Fields: With the approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees, a student may use 200-level courses or fields not officially listed. In place of demonstrating proficiency by satisfactory course performance, a student may also demonstrate proficiency by an oral examination, by submitting evidence of satisfactory work in appropriate courses taken at other institutions, or by other means deemed satisfactory by the Committee on Higher Degrees. Students wishing to utilize this option should submit a petition to the Committee on Higher Degrees before the end of their first year of Harvard graduate school.
The general requirements outlined above are a minimum standard and students will usually take additional courses in their selected fields as well as in others. A student need not fulfill all course requirements before beginning research.
As a result of an exchange agreement between the universities, graduate students in physics at Harvard may also enroll in lecture courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The procedure is outlined under “Cross-Registration"
Physics 247, equivalent laboratory experience, or an oral examination on an experimental topic is a required part of the PhD program for all students who do not submit a thesis that demonstrates experimental proficiency. Students who wish to fulfill this requirement by equivalent laboratory experience or an oral examination should obtain approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees no later than the end of their third year of residence. Students planning on submitting a thesis in theoretical astrophysics may instead satisfy this requirement by taking Astronomy 191 with the approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees.
In addition to research assistantships (RAs), teaching fellowships (TFs) are important sources of support for graduate students after their first year. Because of the importance of teaching skills for a successful physics career, a one-term TF is required of all graduate students, generally within the first five years of study. This teaching experience provides an opportunity for students to develop the communication skills that are vital for careers in academics and industry.
To fulfill the teaching requirement, students must serve as a teaching fellow at least one fall or spring semester for at least 15 hours per week (3/8-time). The TF position should involve a teaching component and not merely grading.
There is no formal language requirement for the PhD in physics. Students are nonetheless advised that knowledge of certain foreign languages is extremely useful in many fields of physics.
By the end of the second year, each student is required to select a faculty chair for a committee to advise the student on the student's research progress. The committee chair is normally one of the department members and, when feasible, a prospective thesis advisor. Under the advisement of the faculty chair, the student should also select two more faculty members to bring the total to three, at least two of whom should be members of the Department of Physics. Selection of the committee, as well as subsequent changes to the committee, require the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies.
Qualifying Oral Examination
Each student is also expected to pass an oral examination given by the student's faculty committee, ideally by the end of the second year, and certainly by the end of the third year. The purpose of the examination is two-fold: The examination aids in estimating the candidate’s potential for performing research at a level required for the doctoral thesis, and also serves as a diagnostic tool for determining whether the candidate requires changes to the program of research and study.
For the examination, each student is asked to select, prepare, and discuss in depth a topic in physics, and to answer questions from the faculty committee both about that topic specifically and more broadly about the student’s larger subfield. Originality is welcomed but not required.
The student selects the topic—preferably but not necessarily related to the proposed field of thesis research—and then submits a title and abstract together with a list of completed course requirements (described above under Program of Study) and a decision as to whether the prospective doctoral research will be experimental or theoretical. The student then confers in detail with the committee chair about the topic to be discussed and concrete expectations for the examination. The committee chair provides approval of the topic, and the overall composition of the examination committee must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies. To ensure adequate preparation, this conference should take place at the earliest possible date, typically one to two months before the examination.
Oral examinations are evaluated on the knowledge and understanding students demonstrate about their chosen topic as well as about their general subfield. Students are also judged on the clarity and organization of their expositions. The examining committee may take into account other information about the candidate’s performance as a graduate student.
The student will pass the examination if the committee believes that the student has demonstrated adequate comprehension of physics in the area of the chosen topic and in the larger field, as well as an ability to perform the thesis research required for the doctoral degree. Students who do not pass the qualifying oral examination on their first attempt will be given instructions for improvement and encouraged by the committee to take a second examination at a later date.
The committee may, upon petition, grant a deferment of the examination for up to one year. Students who have not passed their oral examinations by the end of their third year of graduate study must seek approval from the Committee on Higher Degrees prior to being allowed to register for a fourth year of graduate study. If satisfactory arrangements cannot be made, the student will be withdrawn by the department. A student who wishes to change from an experimental to a theoretical thesis topic, or vice versa, may be required to pass a second qualifying oral examination.
Acceptance as a Candidate for the PhD
The final requirement for acceptance as a doctoral candidate is formal acceptance by a suitable thesis advisor, who should be a faculty member of the Department of Physics or a related department. This requirement should be met soon after the oral examination is passed.
Sometimes students may wish to do a substantial portion of their thesis research under the supervision of someone who is not a faculty member of the Department of Physics or a related department. Such an arrangement must have both the approval of the student’s official departmental advisor as well as that of the Committee on Higher Degrees and the department chair.
Year Three and Beyond
In order to become acquainted with the various programs of research in progress and promising areas for thesis research, students should attend seminars and colloquia, and consult with their faculty advisors and upper-level graduate students. A list of the current faculty and their research programs is available online.
Ordinarily a candidate must be enrolled and in residence for at least two years (four terms) of full-time study in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Ideally, the PhD is completed within six years. The student’s committee reviews the student's progress each year. For financial residence requirements, see Financial Aid.
Criteria for Satisfactory Progress
In addition to the guidelines specified by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the physics department identifies satisfactory progress for graduate students by several key criteria.
Upon successful completion of the qualifying oral examination, the student must arrange for the appointment of a faculty committee that will monitor the progress of the student thereafter. The student must be accepted by an appropriate thesis advisor within 18 months after passing the qualifying oral examination.
During each subsequent year, the student must submit a progress report in the form specified by the Committee on Higher Degrees. The progress report must be approved by the student’s faculty committee and the Committee on Higher Degrees, who will evaluate the student’s progress toward the completion of the degree. The Committee on Higher Degrees will examine with special care students beyond their fifth year.
For other types of extensions or leave-of-absence policies, consult the Registration section of GSAS policies.
Toward the end of the student’s thesis research, the student should arrange a dissertation committee, which consists of at least three faculty members and is chaired by a member of the Harvard Department of Physics. At least two members of the dissertation committee, including the chair, must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). A non-FAS thesis advisor should be a member of the dissertation committee, but cannot serve as its official chair.
The dissertation defense consists of an oral final examination delivered to the dissertation committee that involves a searching analysis of the student’s thesis. If the student’s coursework does not indicate a wide proficiency in the field of the thesis, the examination may be extended to test this proficiency as well.
The candidate must provide draft copies of the completed thesis for members of the dissertation committee at least three weeks in advance of the examination. See the Dissertation section of GSAS policies for detailed requirements.
Master of Arts (AM)
The Department of Physics does not admit graduate students whose sole purpose is to study for the Master of Arts (AM) degree. However, the AM degree is frequently taken by students who continue on for the PhD degree. For those who do not attain the doctorate, the AM degree attests to the completion of a full year’s study beyond the bachelor’s degree.
Program of Study (Credit Requirements)
Eight four-credit courses taken while enrolled at Harvard are required for the continuing AM degree. At least four must be physics courses, and ordinarily all must be in physics or related fields like applied physics, applied math, chemistry, biophysics, engineering, or astronomy. Not more than two four-credit courses may be from the 100-level listing, “for undergraduates and graduates,” and ordinarily not more than one four-credit course may be from the 300-level group, “Reading and Research.” The remainder must be from the 200 level, “primarily for graduates,” or graduate-level courses taken by official cross-registration at MIT. There is no limit on the number of the eight four-credit courses taken at MIT.
With the permission of their advisors and with the approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees, students may substitute 300-level courses for more than one of the required eight four-credit courses. For students who were previously undergraduates at Harvard College, only bracketed courses taken as an undergraduate can count toward the AM degree. Courses counted toward the AM degree are also counted toward the PhD.
All four-credit courses counted toward the AM degree must be passed with a grade of C- or better, and a B average must be obtained in these courses. (In calculating the average, a grade of C is offset by a grade of A; no account is taken of pluses or minuses.)
No thesis, general examination, or knowledge of a foreign language is required for the AM degree. The minimum residence requirement is one year.
Students in Harvard College who are pursuing the AB/AM degree must complete the advanced laboratory course, either as Physics 191 for the AB degree (if fulfilling the honors physics track) or as Physics 247 for the AM degree (if not fulfilling the honors physics track). For students pursuing an AB concentration other than the Physics concentration or the Chemistry and Physics concentration, seven of the eight courses for the AM must be physics courses.