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Biological Sciences in Public Health

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Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

Satisfactory Progress

Satisfactory progress is required for Biological Sciences in Public Health (BPH) students in order to continue enrollment in the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Harvard Griffin GSAS). BPH determines progress by considering the following: performance in courses, satisfactory performance on the preliminary qualifying examination, demonstration of adequate research ability and/or level of improvement, acceptable ethical conduct, and participation in other scholarly activities of the student’s program.

The First Two Years

First-Year Advisor

The BPH faculty director is responsible for advising first-year students. With assistance from the faculty director, graduate students select courses and laboratory rotations that best suit their needs. The faculty director will provide academic and non­academic guidance until a dissertation advisor is selected, typically at the end of year one. Thereafter, most direction given to students will be from their dissertation advisor and from their dissertation advisory committee.

Courses and Grades

In general, the BPH program expects students to receive a grade of B or better in core and required classes to reflect their command of these topics. If students do not receive a B or better, they may be required to take additional courses to make up this deficiency. Harvard Griffin GSAS states that the minimum standard for satisfactory work in the graduate school is a B average in each academic year. The grade of C or incomplete is offset by a grade of A, and a grade of D is offset by two As. Pluses and minuses are ignored for this calculation.

Students must take the required courses outlined by the program. Each student designs an individualized, flexible curriculum plan with advice from the BPH faculty director and their advisor that meets their areas of specific scientific interest.

The particular courses a student is required to take may vary based on the student's academic background, needs, and interests. In addition to the core curriculum, some students are required to take other courses to ensure a broad background in basic science and/or to correct any deficiencies in their grades. For more information, students should review the BPH Requirements page on the program's website.

Waiver of Course Requirements

For some students who have successfully completed graduate-level coursework, BPH course requirements may be waived if graduate-level competency is demonstrated to the faculty director before the end of the first term of year one. Students may request a Course Waiver Form from the BPH program office. A signed copy will be kept in the student’s file as documentation of the director’s authorization to grant an exemption to a student from further coursework in these areas.


BPH students are required to do official laboratory rotations to help identify a dissertation laboratory advisor. Laboratory rotations permit students to gain familiarity with several laboratories not only to learn concepts and techniques but primarily to select a laboratory in which they will complete their dissertation research.

Number and Selection of Rotations

Students are required to complete two rotations but ordinarily participate in three 9- to 10-week rotations in different laboratories. Of the three rotations, two must be performed in a BPH faculty laboratory. If a student identifies a dissertation laboratory after two rotations, they may petition the BPH program director to begin their dissertation research in lieu of further rotation studies.

Students may approach any BPH faculty member for rotations. While offering a rotation does not obligate a laboratory to ultimately accept that student, the student should rotate only in laboratories that are willing and able—considering space and financial capacity—to accept new students. To facilitate the selection of laboratory rotations, students may refer to descriptions of faculty research and recent publications found on the faculty member’s website. Additionally, first-year students will be required to attend “faculty pizza talks,” which occur weekly from July through early September. These talks will be informal 90-minute presentations/discussions with BPH faculty about the current and future research directions of their laboratory. These interactions greatly help students make well thought-out choices about their rotations and future studies. Rotations with faculty outside the BPH program must be approved in advance by the program director. Please note that if a student wants to rotate with a faculty member outside of BPH, that faculty member must be affiliated with Harvard Integrated Life Sciences (HILS).

Preparing for Rotations

Prior to beginning any rotation, the laboratory head and the student must reach an agreement about what the project will involve and the length of the rotation (typically 9 to 10 weeks). In addition, the laboratory head and the student should explore whether or not this is a potential dissertation laboratory, considering appropriate funding to support a doctoral student should there be a mutual interest in the future. To receive credit, students must register via Harvard Griffin GSAS registration for BPH 201r and complete a BPH Rotation Registration Form signed by the student and the laboratory head and then submitted to the BPH program director for approval prior to the beginning of the rotation.

In preparation for working in laboratories, all incoming BPH students are required to complete virtual/online lab safety training as well as occupational health clearance forms prior to the July orientation. Furthermore, prior to each rotation, students will need to undergo a laboratory safety orientation and may be required to complete additional safety trainings pertinent to the specific laboratory work to be performed. It is the student’s responsibility to check in with both the principal investigator (PI) and lab manager to determine the exact requirements necessary prior to beginning each rotation.

Completing Rotations

Upon completion of the first and second laboratory rotations in September and December, respectively, first-year students will write a two-page report and present the background and findings of the rotation in an oral presentation to an audience comprised of BPH students, faculty, and other members of the rotation lab. Subsequently, at the culmination of each laboratory rotation, the faculty mentor is required to evaluate student performance by completing a Rotation Evaluation Form.

At the end of their first academic year, during the BPH Orientation Week for new students in July, rising G2 students will be required to select one rotation for an oral presentation.

The Conduct of Science

Medical Sciences 300qc, The Conduct of Science, is a discussion forum course 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 BPH program must register to take this course, generally in the fall of their 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.

Laboratory Safety

All incoming BPH graduate students are required to take the Harvard University Laboratory Safety 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 the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health must report to the safety office at that institution for additional information on training.

Credit for Work Done Elsewhere

The program 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 Harvard Griffin GSAS credit toward the PhD degree. Courses for official Harvard Griffin GSAS credit cannot appear on the student’s undergraduate transcript.

Selecting a Dissertation Advisor

Typically, after completing two to three rotations, and no later than the beginning of the second year, BPH students are required to select a dissertation advisor who is a member of the BPH faculty. To formalize the academic and financial responsibilities of the dissertation advisor, a Dissertation Declaration Form must be signed and submitted to the BPH program office.

Preliminary Qualifying Examinations (PQE)

In the spring of the second year, BPH students take a preliminary qualifying examination (PQE). The purpose of the PQE is to assess the student's preparation and ability to embark on original scientific investigation. Specifically, the PQE committee will evaluate the student's ability to identify and articulate a clear hypothesis for their thesis topic based upon familiarity with relevant literature, to propose critical experiments designed to prove or to disprove the hypothesis, and to interpret experimental outcomes in a manner that indicates awareness of the limitations of the methods used. It is not expected that preliminary data will be presented to support the hypothesis. The exam includes a written proposal and oral defense of that proposal on a topic related to the dissertation research.

Preparing for the PQE: Student Timeline

  • Complete the BPH Preliminary Qualifying Exam Course Form, listing the coursework taken to fulfill program requirements. The BPH program must approve of satisfactory progress before the student proceeds in the PQE process.
  • The PQE committee will consist of three BPH program faculty* with relevant expertise for each student’s area of research chosen by the student in consultation with the advisor and faculty director. Students may also name faculty with appointments in BPH-affiliated departments who themselves might not be BPH members. The PQE committee chair, who will act to moderate and document the proceedings and outcomes of the exam in addition to serving as an examiner, must be a member of the PQE Steering Committee, which is comprised of experienced examiners with collective expertise that cuts across the scientific spectrum covered within the program. The research/dissertation advisor is not part of the student’s PQE committee. The student must complete the PQE Committee Form and have it approved by the BPH faculty director.

    *For students in dissertation labs outside of BPH (HILS-affiliated labs), one member of their PQE committee can be from that HILS-affiliated lab’s department. 

  • The student is required to send the PQE Committee Form and the PQE Course Form to the BPH office as soon as these are completed along with the date, time, and location of the exam.

    NOTE: It is critical for students to work with the BPH Office in scheduling PQEs so as to avoid conflict with other BPH academic endeavors such as dissertation defenses.

  • Topic and content: Students are expected to choose a topic for their exam that is ordinarily related to the topic of the student’s dissertation. While it is fully expected that the advisor would help guide the student toward their current topic of dissertation research and provide technical advice, the advisor and PQE committee are not allowed to assist the student in developing the scope and aims of the proposal. However, students are encouraged to get feedback and critical comment from their peers in the laboratory and program.
  • Preparation Period and Guidelines: During the preparation of the proposal, students may consult with faculty and other students. Consultation on general issues (clarification, technical advice, etc.) is appropriate, but solicitation regarding ideas for specific aims or experimental design is inappropriate. Faculty members, including dissertation advisors, should not read written drafts of the proposal in order to provide extensive help. Furthermore, students should not seek feedback from the members of their exam committee.

The Written Proposal 

The written component is submitted to the PQE committee at least 10 calendar days before the oral exam. A copy of the proposal should also be provided to the BPH program office and the dissertation advisor. The proposal should be single-spaced, following the form of an NIH postdoctoral fellowship application on the topic chosen (Arial, 11 pt. font, six-page maximum, excluding references). The proposal should include the following sections: 

  • Specific Aims: Listing the objectives of the specific research proposed (e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology). One page or less is recommended. 
  • Background and Significance: Briefly sketch the background leading to the proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill. State concisely the importance and health relevance of the research described in this application by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives. If the aims of the application are achieved, state how scientific knowledge will be advanced. Describe the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services or preventative interventions. Summarize your preliminary work, and work of others, that support the proposed research. Two pages are recommended. 
  • Research Design and Methods: Describe the research design conceptual framework, procedures, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Briefly summarize how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any novel approaches, tools, technologies, or methods you may develop, and advantages over existing methodologies. Describe any novel concepts, approaches, tools, or technologies for the proposed studies. Discuss the potential challenges, difficulties, caveats, and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Highlight anticipated outcomes, alternative interpretations, and potential pitfalls. Four pages are recommended. 
  • References: Include author, title, journal, inclusive pages, and year.

The Oral Exam

The oral portion of the exam is built around a defense of the written proposal. At the outset of the exam, the student leaves room for the PQE committee to discuss the merits of the written proposal and identify key areas they want to test the student on. Additionally, the dissertation advisor will be asked to attend the PQE exam at the very beginning to review the student’s preparation for the exam with the committee but will not be present during the oral examination.

Once the student is asked back into the room, the exam starts with a short presentation by the student (no more than 10 slides) of the background, specific aims, rationale, preliminary data, and proposed approach. The examiners, having read the proposal in detail, then ask questions that are directly related and tangential to the proposal. Students must defend and explain the hypothesis, methods, and anticipated results while also recognizing alternative approaches and interpretations. The committee will invariably test the student’s understanding of the core principles that underlie the scientific problem and their origins. Students may be asked to draw models or experimental flowcharts on the board for clarity. The exam is usually completed in about two hours, at which time the committee deliberates an outcome with the student out of the room. The PQE chair will serve not only as an examiner but also oversee the administering of the exam and arbitrate problems. The chair will also see that the PQE Report Form is completed and on file in the BPH program office at the completion of the exam. 

PQE Outcomes

The PQE committee evaluates the individual sections and overall content of the written proposal with an emphasis on the rationale and feasibility of the aims and whether the aims are interdependent or not. Often, deficiencies in the written proposal are satisfactorily addressed in the oral exam. However, a critique of the proposal will be provided and students may be asked to rewrite specific sections or, on occasion, the entire proposal.

For the oral exam, the committee will deliberate on the student’s preparedness as it relates to:

  1. broad background knowledge of the chosen field and related literature
  2. the ability to deconstruct and think critically about the research project and field (i.e., what are the established first principles and how were they established and what assumptions have been made, but not proven, that impact the proposed study?)
  3. the application of specific methods, including strengths, limitations, alternatives, and statistical considerations
  4. the capacity to interpret specific outcomes and define an appropriate course of subsequent experiments
  5. presentation skills and clarity.

Specific comments on these areas of competency and others will be provided on the PQE Report Form.

Based on the student's performance, the committee will make constructive recommendations or require specific actions related either to the written proposal or to making improvements in specific competency areas recognized from the oral exam. 

The Potential Outcomes of the PQE are:

1. PASS: A constructive critique and list of recommendations for improvement is provided to the student.

2. CONDITIONAL: This is a qualified pass. In addition to recommendations, a specific list of required changes to the written proposal or actions needed to improve competencies (e.g., through coursework, online modules, article reading, working with a tutor or faculty member on a specific area of deficiency, etc.) will be given and discussed with the student, along with a timeline for completion. For example, a student might be asked to write an additional one- or two-page report on a specific area of importance to their project that they displayed insufficient knowledge of, which would be done after further reading of the literature and/or additional coursework. The PQE chair, laboratory mentor, and faculty director will oversee the satisfactory completion of these required actions within the set timeline.

3. RETAKE: If the committee determines that both the written proposal and oral exam are inadequate, with substantial deficiencies being recognized in multiple areas, then the student will be asked to retake the exam. The PQE Report will delineate these deficiencies and make clear recommendations to the student on what needs to be improved. A decision to require a retake of the PQE must be signed off on by the faculty director and PQE steering committee after reviewing the case.

A meeting is then held with the PQE chair, faculty director, advisor/PI, and student to discuss the case and the specific improvements needed. Resources available to the student and a strategy to employ them for improvements in scientific understanding and reasoning, critical thinking, proposal writing, or presentation will be provided to the student. The student must retake the exam, including submission of a revised written proposal, within six months. Unless aspects of the previous exam were deemed potentially unfair to the student, the same PQE committee will administer the retake, and the faculty director or a representative of the PQE steering committee will attend as an observer. In rare circumstances, the student may be counseled to consider leaving the program at this stage.

4. FAIL: The outcome of the retake exam is either pass or fail, and a student can only fail the PQE at the retake stage. Failing the PQE would occur if a combination of the revised proposal and second oral exam are again found to be insufficient and demonstrating a lack of preparedness and qualifications to move forward in the program. If after final considerations by the faculty director, PQE steering committee, and mentor it is concluded that the student is best served by leaving the program to pursue other interests, the student will be asked to leave the program at the end of the term.

Upon satisfactory completion of their PQE, BPH students advance to become PhD candidates.


Advising of students is multilayered, distributed among primary advisors, committees, program heads, faculty at large, program administrators, BPH, and Harvard Griffin GSAS. The BPH program provides all students with academic guidelines that describe advising in depth. In general, first-year students are advised by the BPH faculty director. After a student selects a dissertation laboratory in their first year, that PI becomes the primary advisor, and the program director remains as the secondary advisor. Six months after a student passes their preliminary qualifying exam, a dissertation advisory committee (DAC) is formed. In concert with the dissertation advisor, the DAC monitors the student’s progress, offers assistance, and determines when the student can write and defend the dissertation.

BPH Individual Development Plan (IDP)

The BPH program has implemented the BPH Individual Development Plan (IDP) for its students. There are four aims to the BPH IDP process: self-assessment, career exploration, goal setting, and IDP implementation.

  1. Self-assessment: Students will complete annual self-assessments. The emphasis is on stage-specific graduate school goals with a focus on recognition of skills and deficiencies. Goals in the G1 year focus on expanding desired knowledge and filling gaps through course work, the selection of laboratory rotations, and finding the best fit for a dissertation advisor. Goals for the G2 year and beyond focus on developing project ideas and research directions toward the dissertation, enhancing skills in experimental design and execution, critical data interpretation, and communicating science to diverse audiences. Student ideas around career aspirations, which evolve during the doctoral studies should be discussed at each stage.
  2. Career exploration: Beginning in the G3 year, students should research career options, network, and explore different career paths by reading online resources and attending alumni career workshops and other events within the Harvard community and elsewhere. The goal is to recognize the skills and experiences that best fit a given career path.
  3. Goal setting: Students identify actionable goals for developing desired skills, determining areas of professional interest, and building contacts within those areas of interest.
  4. IDP implementation: In all years, students will have targeted conversations with their mentor(s) about academic and professional goals, plans and experiences, and ways to implement and monitor progress towards these goals. These conversations encompass short-term goals related to doctoral studies and research, mid-range goals for just after graduate school, and longer-term career goals, with the emphasis guided by stage of training.

IDP Advisor

The role of the IDP advisor is to help with goal setting, career advice, and the implementation of the IDP.

G1's IDP advisor will be the BPH faculty director (or a faculty member of their choosing), and at the end of the G1 year, students will select any faculty member of their choosing for the remainder of their program to serve as their IDP advisor.

IDP Program Requirements

Your completion of the IDP process each year is a requirement of the BPH program and aligns with NIH requirements. Considering that the beginning of an academic year is an ideal time for self-reflection and planning, we ask that you complete the IDP process by September 30 of each academic year. Completing the IDP process consists of the following steps:

  • completing the appropriate IDP form
  • sending the completed IDP form to your IDP advisor
  • meeting with your IDP advisor prior to September 30 each year
  • completing the BPH Verification Page by September 30.

We ask that you share your IDP form with your IDP advisor prior to your meeting to facilitate your discussion. These forms and conversations will remain confidential between you and your IDP advisor unless you choose to share portions of it with your dissertation advisor. Please note that the BPH program is NOT collecting the IDP forms. Rather, you will need to complete a BPH Verification Page confirming you met with your IDP advisor by September 30 of each year documenting that you completed the process.


While the program does not have a teaching requirement, the BPH program encourages interested students to gain meaningful teaching experience as part of their graduate training. Students may undertake teaching or tutoring responsibilities but only with permission of their dissertation research advisor, if they have one, and permission of their program head.

Year Three and Beyond

Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC)

The purpose of the dissertation advisory committee (DAC) is to help set research goals and directions while assessing progress toward the completion of an original body of research appropriate for completion of a PhD dissertation.

Overall, the major goals of the DAC are to:

  1. critically assess the student’s progress in both a specific research project and development as a scientist
  2. provide advice and assistance to the student to overcome hurdles to progress in both areas
  3. assure that the student’s research project remains focused within a reasonable scope
  4. guide the student toward completion of the project in a timely fashion, usually resulting in at least one first-author primary research publication.

DAC Membership

The DAC is a group of faculty selected by the student and mentor to provide guidance and direction on the student’s dissertation research and assess both the progress of the project and the development of the student scientist. In addition to providing practical and technical assistance to the student, the DAC also serves to moderate the mentor-student relationship and any nonscientific issues hindering progress. It is therefore important for the students to have committee members they trust and with whom they feel comfortable discussing such issues. Students select DAC members in consultation with their dissertation advisor who must agree to the makeup of the committee.

The membership of the DAC must be approved by the BPH program office. Students should submit the DAC Membership Form to the BPH office as soon as they have assembled a potential committee for approval. The requirements for the DAC composition are the following:

  • The DAC is composed of three or more faculty members who have complementary and relevant expertise to fit the student’s dissertation project.
  • Additionally, the dissertation advisor must attend each DAC meeting but is not an official member of the DAC.
  • The chair of the DAC is required to be a BPH faculty member, usually with the same departmental affiliation as the student's advisor.
  • At least one member should be from outside the BPH program, from another Harvard-affiliated institute, or an unaffiliated institute (e.g., MIT, Brown University, University of Massachusetts, etc.).
  • The other DAC member(s) should have Harvard-affiliated faculty positions.
  • Unless otherwise approved by the BPH program office, all members should be tenure track faculty or equivalent.
  • All DAC members should be present at DAC meetings unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Preparing for the DAC meeting: Student Timeline and Program Procedures

  • The first DAC meeting should be scheduled within six months of completing the PQE and prior to the beginning of the sixth term. Subsequent DAC meetings should be scheduled about every six to nine months to assess student progress.
  • DAC meetings will be more frequent for students G4 and above. All students must demonstrate to the DAC committee a plausible track towards degree completion by year five or they may not be allowed to continue in the program. The BPH program director may attend DAC meetings for students in the G6 year and above to assess whether appropriate progress towards degree completion is being made.
  • Students bear primary responsibility for setting up the DAC meetings. Students should notify the BPH office about all meeting days and times as soon as they have been set so as to not conflict with other major BPH milestones such as PQEs and defenses.  Additionally, students should include the BPH office in any material distribution in advance of DAC meetings. 
  • Seven to ten days prior to each DAC meeting, the student assessment and advisor assessment portions of the DAC Report Form should be completed and sent to the DAC along with any relevant materials (e.g., progress report). NOTE: For the first DAC meeting, students will submit a dissertation proposal—please see the directions below for more details. Additionally, students should send the DAC guidelines/overview to the committee before the first DAC meeting.
  • After each DAC meeting, the DAC chair will complete the rest of the DAC Report Form and all DAC members sign it. The completed form should then be submitted to the BPH program where it will be scanned, electronically sent to the entire committee, and filed in the student’s record along with all materials from that respective DAC meeting. These materials document progress to date and recommendations for further work, which are required by Harvard Griffin GSAS.
    • The DAC Report Form contains three sections:
      1. student self-assessment of progress
      2. an advisor/mentor assessment of the student’s progress
      3. the DAC’s assessment of the project and student’s progress.
    • The first two parts of this form are completed by the student and advisor, respectively. The DAC assessment part of the form is filled out during or just after completion of the DAC meeting. As an additional component of the DAC report, the student is asked to provide two “elevator-pitch” statements of four sentences or less, one that is more technical for non-expert scientists and one that is in lay language for non-scientists. The purpose of these statements is to improve science communication skills to different audiences.
  • The BPH program is required to give Harvard Griffin GSAS an accounting of student progress via Satisfactory Progress Reports, a key component of which is regular DAC meetings for G3 students and above. Unsatisfactory progress will be reported for any student who fails to have DAC meetings at six- to nine-month intervals unless a different meeting frequency is recommended by the student DAC and communicated to the program office by the DAC chair. However, this may be changed to satisfactory progress at the submission of a DAC report to the BPH program office.

DAC Content and Materials

The First DAC Meeting: Dissertation Proposal

In addition to completing the specified portions of the DAC Report Form noted in the “preparing for the DAC” section, students submit a written dissertation proposal to the dissertation advisory committee within six months of successfully completing the preliminary qualifying exam. At this initial DAC meeting, it is not expected that extensive preliminary studies have been completed, but the scope and focus of the dissertation research should be defined. Students should present a clear plan for completing all of the work required for the PhD dissertation within approximately three years. While it is understood the plans will evolve over the course of thesis research, especially since highly creative projects engender some risks, and delays of an unexpected nature may arise, students are encouraged to strive for this goal. The full proposal should be about seven to eight pages in length (excluding references) and should include the following sections:

  1. abstract
  2. specific aims  
  3. background and significance
  4. experimental design, including expected results and interpretations
  5. references (author, title, journal, inclusive pages, and year).

The DAC and student will meet to discuss the dissertation proposal, and committee members will provide the student with feedback, guidance, and suggestions to help define the dissertation project in terms of scope, direction, and general quality. Please see the “Organization of the DAC Meetings” section for more details.

Subsequent DAC Meetings:

In addition to completing the specified portions of the DAC Report Form noted in the “Preparing for the DAC” section, students submit a written Research Progress Report of three to five pages in length (not including figures): 

  1. Specific aims: If the aims have been modified from the original DAC meeting proposal, the revised aims should be presented and the reasons for the modifications.
  2. Studies and results: The studies directed toward specific aims and the positive and negative results obtained should be presented, as well as any technical problems encountered and how addressed. Figures of key pieces of data and working models should be included.
  3. Significance: A brief discussion on the significance of the findings to the current state of the scientific field. 
  4. Plans: A summary of plans to address the remaining specific aims, including any important modifications to the original plans.

Organization of DAC Meetings

1. FACULTY AND STUDENT ALTERNATELY LEAVE THE ROOM. To provide an opportunity for both the student and the advisor to communicate with DAC members on a confidential basis, each meeting follows this format: 1) The DAC meets with the student while the PI steps out; 2) The DAC meets with the PI while the students steps out; 3) The student gives a presentation on their project to date, everyone discusses, and the DAC makes recommendations. In the absence of the student, the advisor will have a chance to expand on the written comments in the DAC report form, present their assessment of the student’s progress, and whether the student is on course to graduate in a timely fashion. The student self-evaluation form should be discussed (this should have been reviewed by the student with their PI prior to the DAC meeting) along with any issues perceived as hindering the student’s progress. In the absence of the advisor, the student may likewise communicate their own assessment of their progress and whether the advisor and the laboratory environment provide the support that they need. Again, the student self-evaluation form can help frame this discussion. This is also an opportunity to share with the committee any other problems of a confidential nature with which the student needs help or that the DAC should be aware of in assessing progress. In this manner, the DAC serves to moderate the student-advisor relationship and recognize hurdles to progress that the student faces that may be arising from their interactions with the advisor, or lack thereof, or within the laboratory environment. If needed, the DAC chair will bring issues that arise to the attention of the faculty director, or encourage students and advisors to do so, for further mitigation. After these private meetings with the DAC, the DAC, the advisor, and the student will proceed to the student presentation portion as described below.

2. Student presentation. The main part of the meeting will consist of a 30- to 40-minute presentation by the student of results and plans. Committee members will typically interrupt the presentation with questions, and the presentation is followed by a discussion of progress and future plans. The advisor should interject minimally so that the student has the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of their field and scientific maturity surrounding ongoing and future work. 

3. Comments/feedback given to student by DAC. The DAC meeting is not an exam but a scientific discussion geared toward critically assessing current data, discussing next steps, and discussing the overall direction of the student’s project. The student does not present an exhaustive set of data generated since the previous DAC but rather summarizes the core findings and conclusions, alternative interpretations, and impediments to progress. Typically, the committee will spend much of the time on technical hurdles or key decision/branch-point experiments in the project, along with a broader discussion of the novelty and impact of the findings. The collective expertise of the DAC, advisor, and student are employed to help set or reset the course of experiments, focusing on the student recognizing the highest priority experiments and developing a plan of action to complete those experiments. Rigor and reproducibility should be points of emphasis in the DAC meeting, accompanied by a critical discussion of quantitative approaches and proper use of statistical methods. In addition to providing constructive comments and point-by-point suggestions on the science, both during the meeting and in the written report, the DAC assesses and documents whether the student is on a good track toward graduation and the progress of the student's development as a scientist.

Moreover, the DAC should comment on the student’s progress on experimentation and whether it has the potential to lead to one or more first-author publications. The committee should evaluate the student’s ability to think independently, including development of hypotheses, practical approaches for testing hypotheses, critical interpretation of data, understanding relevance of results in light of current thinking in the field, and judging how to effectively pursue the line of investigation.

4. Reporting student’s progress. The DAC chair will complete the committee’s section of the DAC report form, which the BPH program director will review. Other concerns that arise during the DAC meeting may also be communicated to the BPH office.

5. Duration of the DAC meeting. The overall DAC meeting usually lasts about two hours.

Final DAC and Permission to Write the Dissertation

It is ultimately the DAC’s decision, in consultation with the student and advisor, when the student may begin writing their dissertation. The core requirement for this milestone is that the student must have completed a body of primary research deemed to be of publishable quality. While a first-author research paper is not required to attain the degree, the vast majority of graduating students will have at least one published first-author, peer-reviewed primary research paper or at least one that is largely prepared or submitted prior to graduation. In addition, the DAC considers the scientific maturity, independence, and capacity for original thinking in considering the student’s readiness to graduate. Career aspirations and immediate future plans can also factor in to the timing of this decision.

When the DAC concludes that the student has met the requirements for earning a PhD and is ready to begin writing their dissertation, the committee will "check the box" on the student's DAC report form at the completion of the final DAC meeting. The student's dissertation defense must take place within six months of the date on which the box is checked.

Defense and Dissertation Overview

Once a student’s box is checked, the BPH student should set up a one-on-one “defense packet meeting” with the BPH assistant director or program coordinator to review the defense and dissertation process, which includes reviewing all required materials, logistics, timing, FAS/Harvard Griffin GSAS guidelines, sample forms, and answering questions related to these processes.

Defense Committee

A defense committee must be approved by the BPH program, with membership listed on the Dissertation Defense Committee Form. By Harvard Griffin GSAS rules, all members must hold academic positions of assistant professor or higher. There are four members of the committee, which should meet the following criteria:

  • Defense committee chair: One member of the student’s DAC, often the DAC chair, is required to chair the oral defense. This required holdover from the DAC serves the purpose of providing insight to the examiners regarding the path the student has taken in completing the dissertation research. Their primary role is to assess committee satisfaction with the written dissertation, administer the exam, arbitrate any problems that may arise, and make final recommendations for completion of necessary corrections and additions to the dissertation. No other DAC members can serve on the defense committee.
  • At least one member should be a BPH faculty member, often from the same academic department.
  • One member of the examination committee must be from outside of Harvard University.
  • The fourth member should be from either BPH or another Harvard-affiliated program.
  • Coauthors and collaborators cannot be members of the defense committee.

Defense Timing and Format

  • Overall, students should reserve three hours for their defense: one hour for the public seminar and up to two hours for the private oral examination. The title, time, date, and place of the exam will be announced by email to members of the BPH community and publicized throughout HSPH (and outside labs if a student is in a HILS-affiliated lab). It is worth noting that the public seminar and the private exam can be held in different rooms, depending on what rooms are available. 
  • Students should notify the BPH program as far in advance with the details of the exam, especially because the BPH program attempts to avoid conflicts with all milestone scheduling such as PQEs, DACs, and other students' defenses.
  • The student is required to notify the BPH office no later than three weeks in advance of the defense with the final dissertation title. 
  • At least two weeks before the date of exam, defense committee members should be sent copies of the dissertation for review. A copy of the dissertation should also be sent to the BPH program. 
  • If any defense committee member foresees problems with the exam, they should contact the chair of the defense committee in advance of the meeting. If major problems are found with the written document, the committee can decide to postpone the oral defense until satisfactory changes are made. While rare in our program, these occasions can involve the insufficient or improper use of statistical methods, grossly overstated conclusions, insufficient background or discussion, or evidence of plagiarism.
  • More details about the timing and format are provided in the “defense packet meeting” held with each student.

Stipend Guidelines

If a student successfully defends the dissertation before the 15th of the month, the stipend will be terminated at the end of that month. If the student successfully defends on or after the 15th, the next month’s stipend will be the final month the student is paid, at the discretion of their advisor. 

Students are encouraged to speak to their advisors directly about how they should be paid as they complete their graduate work. If an advisor wishes to pay the student for one additional month, beyond what has been explained above, the advisor must notify the department’s financial administrator. For administrative reasons, a stipend cannot be issued to a student after their graduation/degree conferral date. 

Oral Defense Procedures

Part 1: Public Seminar

As part of the exam, the PhD candidate will present a public seminar followed by a private oral examination. The public presentation lasts no longer than one hour, which includes time for the advisor’s introduction, the student’s oral presentation and acknowledgements, and time for audience questions and answers. The defense committee is required to attend the public seminar; however, it is customary for members of the defense committee to hold their questions until the private oral exam.

Part 2: Private Oral Examination

A private oral examination follows the public seminar. Initially, the student will be asked to leave the room for several minutes, along with the dissertation advisor (if the dissertation advisor has decided to remain for the private exam). During this time, the committee will discuss the merits of the dissertation, any issues with the dissertation, and areas they may want to focus on during the oral exam. The student (and advisor, if present) is then asked back into the room for the exam.

Each member of the defense committee will direct questions to the candidate based on their review of the dissertation and presentation of the seminar. The defense chair will moderate the discussion between the panel and the student. The closed defense takes up to two hours and involves detailed technical questions as well as broader questions on the conclusions, impact, and limitations of the research. Dissertation advisors may be present but they must not participate in the exam (e.g., answer questions posed by the committee). 

At the end of the examination, the student (and advisor, if present) is once again asked to step out of the room for several minutes. The committee will discuss any revisions needed for the thesis, whether these revisions need to be reviewed and by whom. Once the committee determines the outcomes, the student will be asked back into the room for the committee to provide the student with any changes needed to the dissertation. While it is extremely rare for the student to fail at this stage, the committee will provide recommendations to the student on their research, communication skills, and development as a scientist, as well as delineate the required changes to the dissertation.

Preparing for the Defense/Writing the Dissertation

Students preparing to write and defend their dissertation must review University requirements as outlined in Dissertations with guidelines published at Harvard Griffin GSAS.

Students are also welcome to visit the BPH Student Lounge (Building 2, Room 113) to look at copies of previous BPH bound dissertations.

Writing the Dissertation

Each student must write a comprehensive PhD dissertation on their research topic and the original results of their research. There are a variety of ways a dissertation can be composed, but the core elements described below must be included. The dissertation must show original treatment of the subject, contain a scholarly review of the pertinent literature, provide evidence of independent research of publishable quality, and be clearly, logically, and carefully written. In addition to a compendium of the student’s research, including detailed methods and results, the dissertation must contain a thoughtful discussion of the conclusions, impact, and limitations of the research.

The completed work should be critically reviewed by the dissertation advisor before being submitted to the dissertation defense committee.

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 to the work and how. For example, a chapter containing multi-authored published work must include a complete reference of the publication and a brief description of the candidate's and the colleagues' contributions. For work that is not published but which resulted from multiple researchers, the contributors must be named and respective attributions made clear. This policy allows stylistic flexibility.  Depending on the amount of collaborative work in the dissertation and the status of publication(s), the attributions can be, preferably, on or accompanying the cover page for each chapter or within an extended acknowledgements section at the end of each chapter. If figures or figure panels included in the dissertation are the work of others, it is recommended that the figure panels be clearly identified and the work properly attributed. 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 also comprehensive introduction and conclusion chapters written by the student. While the text can be the same, use of journal reprints as a chapter is not permissible. A word document of the published article must be used, and the pages in the dissertation must be consecutively numbered. Furthermore, the figures and accompanying figure legends must be integrated into the main body of each chapter, preferably following the first mention of the given figure, not clustered at the end of the chapter. Any dissertation that varies significantly from the Graduate School or FAS guidelines, or is not neat and readable, is subject to required stylistic revision before acceptance by the University. (For further information, please visit Dissertations.)

Defense Forms and Paperwork

Dissertation Acceptance Certificate

Before the examination, the BPH program office will provide the defense committee chair with a copy of the official Dissertation Acceptance certificate. This certificate must be signed by all readers of the dissertation at the end of the examination and returned to the BPH program office. This certificate will be sent to the student so it can be inserted as page one of the dissertation prior to the online submission

If extensive corrections are to be made, the BPH program office will hold the certificate until the defense committee chair and/or assigned reviewer(s) provide a written notification to the BPH program office to confirm that the corrected work has been reviewed and approved.

For more extensive information about requirements for Biological Sciences in Public Health, students should consult the BPH program office or the website

Dissertation Defense Exam Report

The dissertation defense exam report is completed by the members of the dissertation defense committee to provide a record of any comments or recommendations they may have. The report must be signed by all members immediately after the private exam. The completed report must be submitted to the BPH program office at the same time as the Dissertation Acceptance certificate.

Contact Info

Biological Sciences in Public Health Website

Biological Sciences in Public Health Program Office
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
655 Huntington Avenue
Building 2–113
Boston, MA 02115-6096

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