Quantum Science and Engineering

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The graduate program in quantum science and engineering 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 program does not accept applications specifically for terminal AM degrees.


The objective of the Quantum Science and Engineering program is to prepare investigators with diverse backgrounds for research careers in which the concepts and methods of quantum mechanics are applied to innovative science and practical, useful platforms for quantum sensing, simulation, and computation. This objective will be met through individually designed paths involving formal courses in physics, chemistry, and SEAS, rotations in different labs, qualifying examinations, independent research, and thesis writing,

Although no two PhD students follow precisely the same path, students should keep in mind the following general timeline.

The First Two Years


Student Advisory Committee

The Student Advisory Committee (SAC) will oversee the advising process for all students. This will include creating the student’s Individual Advisory Committee, helping to create and approve the student’s Thesis Advisory Committee, and assessing and developing the student advising program for all HQI students.

Individual Advisory Committee

The program assigns each incoming graduate student a three-person Individual Advisory Committee (IAC) before they have identified a particular thesis advisor. The committee will meet on a regular basis with the student to provide advice and guidance on curricular issues, professional development, and discussion of norms and expectations. One of the committee members will be the student’s academic advisor (see below). The role of the committee will include advice and guidance on research and matching of the student with a particular research group.

Academic Advisor

One member of the IAC will be assigned as the student’s academic advisor. They will help the student understand the courses available, degree requirements, and advise on the selection of rotation labs. Should a student wish to change their academic advisor, they will be encouraged to discuss this with the chair or any member of their Advisory Committee. Students and advisors are required to have a one-hour meeting every semester but are expected to meet monthly, at least briefly, until the Thesis Advisory Committee is formed (see below).

In planning a program, students should study the catalog 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 directors of graduate studies.

Course Record

Detailed course requirements are given below under “Program of Study.” Note that the 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 quantum science and engineering and related fields, graduate-level courses taken by official cross-registration at MIT, and units of Reading and/or Research time courses (300-level). 

In fulfilling this requirement, students must obtain grades of B- or better in nine four-credit courses specified as follows:

  1. Mandatory core courses: Four four-credit courses: (1) Foundations of Quantum Mechanics; (2) Quantum Optics; (3) Introduction to Quantum Information Science; and (4) Applied Quantum Systems.
  2. Focus courses: Two four-credit courses drawn from the department's official list. These courses would be fundamental to the student’s sub-area of research.
  3. Field courses: Three required four-credit courses, drawn from the department's official list, with at least one outside the student’s area of specialization.

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 chairs of the Standing Committee on Higher Degrees in Quantum Science and Engineering (SCHDQSE) about their program of study.

Course Descriptions: Courses of Instruction

Other Fields: With the approval of the SCHDQSE, 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 SCHDQSE. Students wishing to utilize this option should submit a petition to the SCHDQSE 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 QSE at Harvard may also enroll in lecture courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The procedure is outlined under Cross-Registration.

Laboratory Rotations

Students will be expected to complete laboratory rotation(s). Typical rotations would begin early in the G1 year and last from two months to one semester. Rotations will be of sufficient length to accomplish a substantial body of work (e.g. the development of some idea into a theory, construction of a device, etc.). The goal of the rotation is for the student to get exposure to “on the ground” research methodologies and the laboratory environment.


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 quantum science and engineering 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 term 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 QSE. Students are nonetheless advised that knowledge of certain foreign languages is extremely useful in many fields.

Qualifying Oral Examination

Each student is also expected to pass an oral examination given by the student's Qualifying Exam Committee (see below), ideally by the end of the fourth term in residence. This oral exam will emphasize general knowledge, reasoning, the ability to formulate a research plan, and the ability to engage in high-level scientific discourse. 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 their specialization field, 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 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.

Qualifying Exam Committee

Each student will have an individual Qualifying Exam Committee, the membership of which will be determined by the SCHDQSE. The committee is responsible for developing and administering the qualifying examination, and for making pass/fail recommendations to the SCHDQSE. Normally, the Qualifying Exam Committee would have three faculty members, one of whom is the student’s prospective thesis advisor. If the student’s immediate research advisor is from outside of Harvard, that person would constitute a fourth member of the committee. The committee should include two members who are QSE program members, with one person outside the specific type of research focus (e.g. for an experimentalist, there would be one theorist on the committee).

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 SCHDQSE prior to being allowed to register for a fourth year of graduate study. If satisfactory arrangements cannot be made, the student will be withdrawn from the program.

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 QSE Core Faculty Member or a related department (Physics, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Mathematics). 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 in a quantum science and engineering field. Such an arrangement must have both the approval of the student’s academic advisor as well as that of the SCHDQSE and the department chair.

A student may wish to design their own thesis projects, taking advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of QSE. These students will need to propose a research plan to their potential academic advisors. The academic advisors will consult with the SCHDQSE and the Student Advisory Committee as to the viability of the plan. Criteria for approval of a student for this program will include the degree of interaction with the faculty in both formal class settings and more informal settings along with the feasibility of the proposed research plan. For these students, the academic advisors will serve on the student’s Thesis Advisory Committee.

Thesis Advisory Committee

In consultation with their thesis advisor or academic advisor, each student will nominate to the SAC a Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) to oversee the progress of their research. This committee will be appointed by the end of the student’s fifth semester. The membership of the TAC will be approved by the SAC. At the same time, the student’s proposed program of research will be reviewed and approved in writing by the TAC. The TAC will meet with the student at least once per year to review progress and offer advice. The TAC will normally have three faculty members, two of whom are QSE program members.

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.

The QSE Program will have an annual retreat. The purpose of the retreat is to bring the entire QSE community together to learn about research progress in QSE both at Harvard and elsewhere. Since the retreat is a major program occasion, all students and program faculty will be expected to attend, and advanced students will be expected to present (orally or through a poster) their thesis research to date.

All students are required to give a short talk about their research, at least yearly, at one of the QSE related gatherings, such as before the Joint Quantum Seminar invited speaker.

Academic Residence

Ordinarily, a candidate must be enrolled and in residence for at least two years (four terms) of full-time study in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. 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 policies specified by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the QSE program identifies satisfactory progress for graduate students by several key criteria.

The student is expected to identify a potential thesis advisor before taking the qualifying exam. The student must be formally accepted by an appropriate thesis advisor and arrange for the appointment of the TAC within six months of passing the qualifying oral examination.

During each subsequent year, the student must submit a progress report in the form specified by the SCHDQSE. The progress report must be approved by the student’s faculty committee and the SCHDQSE, who will evaluate the student’s progress toward the completion of the degree. The SCHDQSE 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.

Dissertation Defense

Following the qualifying exam, the student should arrange a Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC), which consists of at least three faculty members and is chaired by a member of the QSE program (see above). At least two members of the TAC, including the chair, must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) or the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). A non-FAS or SEAS 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. The program requires one bound copy of the final thesis, which students can order through the online dissertation submission system. See the Dissertation section of GSAS Policies for detailed requirements.