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

The First Two Years

The academic requirement for the PhD degree consists of no less than two years—at least one of which must be in residence at the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—devoted to advanced studies approved as suitable preparation for the degree by the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics.

In estimating the extent of a candidate’s study for the degree, the advanced work done in other graduate departments of Harvard University or of other universities will be considered.

A year’s work for a resident student normally consists of eight four-credit courses of advanced grade. Under certain conditions, summer courses taken at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole may be counted for credit toward the degree.

The biophysics program anticipates completion of formal course studies in the first two years, followed by full-time research until completion and defense of the research dissertation. 


There is no language examination but students are encouraged to gain a reading knowledge of one foreign language, preferably German, Russian, or French.

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 biophysics program must register to take this course when it is offered in their second year.

Additionally, students entering their 5th year are required to register for the Medical Sciences 302qc, Conduct of Science Refresher Course.

Radiation Safety Course

All incoming biophysics graduate students are required to take the Harvard University Radiation Safety Course before entering into any type of lab work at Harvard. Students who have already completed the Harvard course will not be required to repeat it. All students entering a dissertation lab not located at Harvard Medical School (HMS) must report to the Radiation Safety office at that institution for additional information on training. In addition, students who intend to do rotations or dissertation work at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) must take the MGH radiation course.

Teaching Requirement

Students are required to assist with the teaching of one course by the end of their second year of study.


The program co-chairs meet with each student at least two times during each of their first and second years to monitor progress.

After completing the preliminary qualifying examination (PQE), students assemble a dissertation advisory committee (DAC) that will periodically review and advise on students’ dissertation progress.

Individual Development Plan

Students in the program are required to complete a yearly self-assessment process via the Individual Development Plan through which they consider their current level of achievement as well as understanding and use of available resources, versus their future long- and short-term goals. Future actions to be taken to better reach those goals are determined and considered in conversation with an IDP mentor, the program co-chairs, program administrator, and dissertation research advisor, as appropriate.

Preliminary Dissertation Qualifying Examination

Before beginning dissertation research, it is normally necessary for the student to fulfill the following requirements:

  1. Pass one Harvard course in four subject areas listed in the Programs of Study;
  2. Do satisfactory work in three laboratory rotations; and
  3. Submit and defend an original research proposal (qualifying examination).

The purpose of the qualifying examination is to ensure that the student is adequately prepared to embark on dissertation research. Students prepare an original hypothesis-driven proposal, off-topic from the research expected to be carried out for the PhD dissertation. The examination is normally given at the end of the fourth term of residence before three examiners knowledgeable in the field of the research proposal. A core member of the Biophysics affiliated faculty serves as chair for the qualifying examination. Students submit their written PQE proposal to the PQE Chair two weeks prior to the scheduled PQE defense date. The PQE Chair then approves the written dissertation to be sent to the other members of the examining committee, at least one week in advance of the examination date. Re-examination will be permitted.

As a rule, students who have not completed and passed the qualifying examination by the end of their second year of graduate study will be put on unsatisfactory status.

Students who submit and fail the qualifying examination may be asked to withdraw from the program.

Selecting a Dissertation Advisor

When students have decided on a special field of study and on the dissertation advisor with whom they wish to work, they request approval from the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics through the program co-chairs.


Dissertation Advisory Committee

Upon successful completion of the qualifying examination, a student must assemble a dissertation advisory committee (DAC), which will monitor and report on the progress of the student on an annual or biannual basis. The DAC should consist of at least three faculty members exclusive of the student’s dissertation advisor. The DAC Chair must be a Harvard Biophysics Program faculty member. Dissertation advisors are required to attend DAC meetings for their student mentees. Students shall submit a written dissertation proposal/progress report to the DAC within one week in advance of all scheduled DAC meetings.

A prospective sixth-year student must have obtained approval of a dissertation prospectus or its departmental equivalent.

Preparing for the Dissertation Defense

It is expected that the preparation of a dissertation will usually require full-time work for no fewer than one-and-a-half years, following the qualifying examination. The dissertation must give evidence of independent original research and be clearly, logically, and carefully written in proper English. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described in Dissertations. A student who expects to complete a dissertation in time to receive a degree the following May, November, or March must file an application for the degree, accompanied by a signature of approval from the program chair, at the Registrar’s Office of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, according to the schedule provided in the Harvard Griffin GSAS Degree Calendar.

Copies of the completed typewritten dissertation must be submitted to the Dissertation Examining Committee and the Co-Chairs of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics at least two weeks before the final examination is scheduled to take place. To obtain a degree at the end of the academic year, sufficient time must be allowed for the examination, dissertation correction, and electronic submission to the Registrar's Office.


Each student and the student’s dissertation advisor must select three examining committee members to be submitted to the co-chairs of the Committee on Higher Degrees for approval.

In accordance with Harvard Griffin GSAS policy, three signatures are required on the dissertation acceptance certificate; two examiners signing the dissertation acceptance certificate must hold an FAS faculty appointment. The co-chairs of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics may serve in the capacity of an FAS-appointed signatory.

Public Seminar and Private Oral Defense

The dissertation examination has two components: public seminar and private oral defense. In the oral defense, the candidates will be questioned on the subject of the dissertation and its relation to the student’s special field and collateral subjects. If the reading committee is unable to agree on its recommendations, the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics will decide the question of the acceptance of the dissertation.

On completion of all the requirements, the original bound dissertation, with the dissertation acceptance certificate signed by the reading committee, will be submitted electronically and on ProQuest ETD to the Office of the Registrar of FAS, for inspection by any member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Contact Info 

Biophysics Website

Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics
Seeley G. Mudd Building, Room 204c

250 Longwood Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

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