Skip to main content

Chemical Physics

Last Updated

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

PhD Course Requirements

Students must pass four advanced four-credit courses with average grades of B or higher. Grades of B- will count as a pass if balanced by a B+ or better on a one-for-one basis. Grades of C+ or below will not count. An advanced course is one designated in the announcement of courses as “for undergraduates and graduates” or “primarily for graduates” with the exception of the following courses that cannot be used for credit toward the PhD degree in chemical physics: Chemistry 100r, 135, 145, 160, 161, and 165; Physics 143a, 143b; Chemical Biology 2200, and Molecular and Cellular Biology 121. Courses numbered 300 or above also do not count toward this requirement.

All incoming graduate students (G1s) are required to take Chemistry 301hf, Scientific Teaching and Communication: Practicum in their first year. This course teaches how to communicate scientific concepts in the classroom to prepare for teaching responsibilities in the spring term of the first year.

During orientation, incoming students will create a plan of study in consultation with a member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC). The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses, and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original plan of study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

Students normally satisfy the letter-graded course requirements in the first two years of graduate studies.

Guidelines for Reduction in Course Loads 

In the following situations, students may request a reduction in their course requirements. It will generally be understood that students must demonstrate excellent preparation and generally will be expected to earn grades of A- or better to be considered for these exceptions.  

  1. Students who have already earned a master’s degree at Harvard.  
  2. Students who received an AB from Harvard University and have taken a large number of graduate courses already with honor grades. Graduate-level courses that were used to fulfill the course requirements for the AB degree cannot be used to fulfill the department course requirements.  
  3. In rare cases, students who have earned a master’s degree at another institution and have taken graduate-level courses at that institution equivalent to specific Harvard courses. 

The Director of Graduate Studies, in consultation with the Curriculum Advising Committee, will make the final decision. Ordinarily, the course requirements would not be reduced by more than one course. While these requests will be considered, a reduction in course load is rare. The department feels that taking courses at Harvard that may be similar to courses previously taken elsewhere will still be advantageous to the student’s academic growth, as students will gain new insight from learning advanced material with a different professor. 

Students should email a written petition to Joe Lavin, co-director of graduate studies. This petition should include supporting information about the courses, such as transcripts, a syllabus, name of the professor, textbooks used, etc. Requests may not be made until the student has joined a research group, and approval of the student’s research advisor will be required. 


Our Lab Rotation Program allows first-year graduate students (G1s) to experience the science and environment of our CCB laboratories. The program also exposes our students to the interrelated, multidisciplinary research our faculty pursue and encourages them to investigate beyond the borders of their chosen field. Incoming graduate students are required to participate in three four-week rotations in different laboratories, OR they may conduct one eight-week and one four-week rotation in two different laboratories. The goal of the rotations is to broaden a student’s scientific perspective by exposure to the science and environment of different laboratories. In the third rotation, students may choose to rotate with a professor in a department outside CCB with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies. Students are encouraged to conduct additional rotations if necessary. 


During rotations, once in a lab, each rotation student will be assigned a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor. Mentors are a valuable resource for rotation students, providing guidance and advice regarding lab practices and policies.

Students are strongly encouraged to enter a research group by the start of their second term. Students are required to enter a research group by June 30 of their first year. Once a student joins a research group, the faculty member of that group becomes the student’s advisor. If a student subsequently finds that another area of research more closely matches their interests, the student should consult with the Director of Graduate Studies, the Co-Director of Graduate Studies, or the Assistant Director of Graduate Studies. Students are encouraged to consult with the Director of Graduate Studies, the Co-Director of Graduate Studies, or the Assistant Director of Graduate Studies on any issues that affect graduate student life.

PhD Research Progress and Evaluation

Our faculty are dedicated to teaching graduate students to perform original and creative research. To fulfill this goal, graduate students participate in annual student/faculty meetings starting in the G2 year. Each meeting serves a different purpose within the overall objectives to:  

  • Assess the expertise of a student in performing independent research (second year PhD qualifying exam); 
  • Monitor a student’s research progress and guide the student to develop an original research program (third year proposal/research review meeting); and 
  • Offer advice for the professional development of the graduate student (fourth year advising meeting). 

G2 PhD Qualifying Examination

All students must pass a PhD qualifying examination to assess the (i) early research progress of the PhD candidate and (ii) fundamental knowledge underpinning the student’s PhD research project.

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) assigns each student a PhD Qualifying Committee after the end of the G1 year. Committees typically consist of three CCB faculty members including the student’s research advisor, with one member designated as chair. Each committee will examine four to six students. If a research project involves an advisor (primary or collaborative) external to CCB, then that faculty may attend as an additional member. The chair administers the PhD qualifying examination. Meetings for all G2 students will be held in April or early May of the G2 year. Meetings may only be delayed with the permission of the DGS or if the student has an approved leave of absence during the first two years. Ordinarily, this meeting must be held during the fourth term in residence. The chair from each committee will notify students of the exam results within five days.

Exam Format

The examination includes both written and oral components.

  • Written Examination: No more than five single-spaced pages (or 10 double-spaced pages) in a communication-style format;  figures embedded in the document are included in the five-page limit; references are not included in the five-page limit; report key results of accomplished research and include a brief discussion of future plans. The student is strongly encouraged to use a template provided by the Journal of the American Chemical Society (linked here). While research may not yet be at a publishable level of completeness, the presentation of your report should feature the organization typical of published work to provide everything your audience needs to assess your progress. An ideal written or oral presentation requires addressing the following elements: (1) describing the problem, (2) background and the limitations in the state of the art, (3) your hypothesis, (4) how you will (or did) test your hypothesis, and (5) your analysis. The student must submit this report by email to all faculty members on the Qualifying Committee at least seven days prior to the oral examination, copying the Graduate Program Administrator, Kathy Oakley (
  • Oral Examination: Consists of a 20-minute PowerPoint or blackboard presentation (as decided by the student) followed by 30 minutes of questions and answers by committee members. Committee members will not interrupt the student during the 20-minute presentation. Adherence to the guidelines of the 20-minute presentation will be enforced by the chair of the committee. During the 30-minute Q&A session, queries from committee members span specific aspects of the research project to explore the fundamental knowledge underpinning the research project. Questions on the latter focus on material typically covered in an undergraduate chemistry curriculum that relates to the broadly defined area of the research project.

Students may not consult with their faculty advisor on the preparation of both the written and oral reports, although they are encouraged to get feedback from fellow group members. 

Three Possible Results

  • Pass: The student becomes a candidate for a PhD; a thesis committee forms by the end of the term (see below).
  • Conditional Pass: The committee re-examines the student before the end of the fall term of the G3 year. The committee decides the re-examination format, which may involve a written report to address specific concerns of the committee or re-assembled committee.
  • Fail: The student withdraws from the program at the end of the term, with the opportunity to receive an AM degree in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, provided other requirements have been met as outlined in Harvard Griffin GSAS Policies.

Constitution of PhD Thesis Committee

Upon passing the PhD qualifying examination, a three-member thesis committee will be formed, which will include the student's faculty advisor and two other faculty members. Two members of the committee must be from CCB. The third faculty member may be from CCB or from an external department associated with Harvard University. A student may also petition the DGS for approval of a third faculty member external to Harvard University. A student, in consultation with their research advisor, may add external members beyond the three-person committee with approval of the DGS.

To constitute the committee, in consultation with their research advisor, students will propose at least three faculty members as candidates for their committees in addition to the advisor. The student will submit their faculty preferences on a Thesis Committee Nomination Form, submitted to the CCB department office by June 15. These preferences will be reviewed by the DGS and a faculty advisory group with the intent of honoring the student’s preferences while balancing a fairly distributed committee load among the faculty. The selection process is necessary to avoid faculty being assigned to an inordinately large number of committees. Under unusual circumstances, students may wish to change the membership of their thesis committee for reasons including significant changes in direction of their research topic. Such changes should be requested through the CCB department office. Students must receive approval from the DGS in order for the change in committee to take effect.

G3 Proposal/Research Review Meeting

The one-hour meeting should be held with a student’s thesis committee before May 31 of the G3 year and will be scheduled by the department. The meeting will have two components: a research proposal and a review of research to date.

  • A research proposal will comprise 30 minutes of the one-hour meeting. Students will submit a three- to five-page single-spaced proposal to all members of their faculty committee seven days before the meeting; figures embedded in the document are included in the five-page limit; references are not included in the five-page limit. The student is strongly encouraged to use a template provided by the Journal of the American Chemical Society (linked here). The student must present an original independent research proposal. The student will present this proposal and accept questions from the committee during the first 30 minutes of the meeting (20 minutes for the presentation, 10 minutes for questions). A student cannot pass/fail the research proposal. The purpose of the research proposal is to better develop the student’s skill set at conceiving and designing an original research program. The proposal will be rated (excellent, very good, or good) with a short written critique provided by the committee designed to provide the student feedback that helps to further develop this skill (of writing proposals).
  • A 30-minute research review will be devoted to an update of the research progress made by the student. The research review will be graded satisfactory or unsatisfactory. A grade of unsatisfactory will be reflected in the grade for the student's 300-level reading and research course. This alone will not result in a withdrawal; a student would be withdrawn from the program with two grades of unsatisfactory in a 300-level reading and research course during the course of a student’s graduate studies, in accordance with Harvard Griffin GSAS Policies.

Students may not consult with their faculty advisor on the preparation of both the written and oral reports, although they are encouraged to get feedback from fellow group members. 

G4 Advisory Meeting

The G4 advisory meeting provides a mechanism for students to create relationships with faculty other than their advisor as well as to mediate student/advisor conflict if one exists; provide direction to completion of the PhD degree; and provide career counseling or to address any other concern or issue of interest to the student. The student must call this meeting any time during the G4 year.

The agenda will be set by the student and may address research progress or career counseling in one of two meeting formats:

  • The student may assemble their Thesis Committee for a formal one-hour meeting, or
  • In lieu of a full meeting of the Thesis Committee, the student may choose to meet individually with their advisor and at least one other member of their committee individually.

For either meeting format, the student must first meet with their research advisor to discuss a professional development (PD) plan or proposed plan to graduation (PG).The student will summarize these discussions on the meeting confirmation form. The research advisor must sign off on this form, which should be returned to the CCB department office. 

G5+ Advisory Meeting

Students in the G5 year and beyond must submit a Graduate Progress Form by December 31 of each year. For students planning to graduate in the current academic year, a meeting with the full Thesis Committee is not required; the form should be submitted with a proposed defense date and the advisor’s signature. If not planning to graduate in the current academic year,  students must meet with their Thesis Committee by December 31. A detailed plan for the student's graduation will be decided at this meeting. The student will summarize these discussions on the Graduate Progress Form. The research advisor must sign off on this form, which shouldbe returned to the CCB Department office. 


A thorough command of oral and written English is required. Incoming PhD students who are non-native speakers of English and who have not received their undergraduate degree from an English-speaking institution will be screened by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning to determine their level of proficiency. Students who are not deemed proficient will be required to take courses approved by Harvard Griffin GSAS to improve their English proficiency as part of their preparation for teaching and professional development. Adjustments to first-year course schedules may be necessary to allow for time to take these courses. Students will not be allowed to teach until they are deemed proficient.


All students are expected to teach half-time in the spring term of their first year and during one term of the second year based on teaching needs. In rare instances and at the discretion of the department, less than half-time teaching may be allowed to meet this requirement when half-time teaching positions are not available. With their advisor’s approval, a student may also teach in subsequent years.

Satisfactory Progress

Continuation in the degree program is contingent on the following: (1) satisfactory completion of required coursework, (2) successful completion of the PhD qualifying examination*, (3) admission to a research group by the end of the second term in residence, unless an extension of time has been approved by the director of graduate studies, and (4) satisfactory progress in 300-level research courses.


The preparation of a satisfactory dissertation normally requires at least four years of full-time research. All students are expected to provide a public presentation of their PhD research as part of their program requirements. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described in Dissertations

The dissertation defense includes: 

  1. A public presentation of the student’s PhD research to which members of the CCB community will be invited, followed by  
  2. The private PhD dissertation defense before PhD thesis committee.

Master of Arts (AM)

No master’s degree is offered in chemical physics. However, a prospective candidate for the PhD in this subject may apply to the departments of either Chemistry and Chemical Biology or Physics for the AM degree in the corresponding subject. The requirements for the AM degree in either chemistry or physics are described in Policies under the Chemistry and Chemical Biology or Physics sections.

Contact Info

Chemical Physics Website

Let us know your thoughts

Was This Helpful?

I found what I was looking for.
I couldn't find what I needed.
Events Calendar