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Engineering and Applied Sciences

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Harvard Griffin GSAS students at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences [SEAS] may work toward a PhD in one of four subjects: applied mathematics, applied physics, computer science, and engineering sciences. Within engineering sciences, students may pursue one of several fields including bioengineering, electrical engineering, environmental science and engineering, and materials science and mechanical engineering. PhD students may optionally earn the master of science [SM] degree en route to the PhD (referred to as the “masters in passing” by the Registrar’s Office) if they satisfy the requirements for that degree. There is no foreign language requirement.

More information is available on the SEAS Graduate Policies pages. 

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Courses provide the background knowledge needed to successfully perform research, and they allow students to learn more broadly about a field or related fields in a structured fashion. Students should work in close consultation with their advisor to develop an appropriate program of study (the "PhD program plan") that contains a minimum of 10 (four-unit) letter-graded courses. Most courses will be at the graduate (“200/2000”) level, with a limited number of 100-level or cross-registered graduate-level courses. The 10-course requirement is considered a minimum and not a goal; students are encouraged to take additional courses whenever appropriate. Of the 10 required courses for the PhD degree, at least 8 courses will normally be disciplinary courses, i.e., courses that provide the scientific, mathematical, and technical depth that students need for the graduate programs in engineering and applied science.

A prospective PhD program plan must be submitted for review by the Committee on Higher Degrees [CHD] before the beginning of spring recess during the student's second term. A final PhD program plan listing members of the students' qualifying exam committee must be submitted before Thanksgiving recess in the student's third term. The student should submit a revised final PhD program plan whenever needed, i.e., if their courses as taken or intended to be taken change from the previous program plan.

Each course must be passed with a grade of B- or better, and a B average must be maintained. Academic, but not financial, credit may be granted for graduate coursework done elsewhere while enrolled in a graduate program, but only if those courses are approved by the CHD as part of the degree program and justification for inclusion has been provided. Ordinarily, three is the maximum number of such courses that may be approved, and in many cases, fewer than three will be accepted. Detailed requirements are available on the SEAS graduate policies pages

The first year may be spent primarily on coursework, or if the student is ready they may begin research. Advisors vary in their approach to the first year, so students should consult with their advisor regarding norms and expectations. The second year is typically divided between coursework and research, with coursework completed during the third year if necessary.


One term of teaching is a SEAS requirement for the PhD degree. Second-year PhD students must serve as a Teaching Fellow for a SEAS course or for a FAS course outside of SEAS taught by a member of the SEAS on-ladder faculty (assistant, associate, or full professor). Students are welcome to teach beyond the one term requirement if they wish and if their advisor is supportive of their doing so. Additional teaching appointments may form part of a student’s SEAS financial support package but are not required for the degree.

PhD Advising

When a student enters the PhD program, they are assigned a primary advisor based on the research interests they expressed in the application. The primary advisor assists the student with developing, within the CHD guidelines, a program of courses that will provide the preparation needed for dissertation research, and is the faculty member who has committed to taking the student into their research group for the remainder of the student’s time in the program assuming the student maintains sufficient progress toward the degree.

During the first two terms in the program, the student focuses on identifying a specific research area and a potential research advisor. Most students remain with the initial primary advisor. However, if the student finds that another faculty member’s research more closely matches their interests, the student can ask that faculty member to become their advisor and provide their ongoing funding. A different faculty member may or may not be able to commit to acting as a research advisor.  Only the primary advisor, identified at admission, has made the commitment to advise and fund the student in advance. If the original primary advisor will not be the continuing research advisor, the SEAS Office of Academic Programs will provide time-limited support in helping the enrolled student identify other possible research areas and commit to a new advisor. In either case, the student should discuss this question with and have agreement from a potential research advisor during the spring term of the first year.

The Oral Qualifying Examination

Preparation for research in the major field is evaluated in an oral examination. During the second year, the student finalizes the program of courses with the approval of the research advisor and the CHD, and a qualifying examination committee is developed, including faculty members nominated by the research advisor, the student, and the CHD.  The committee must contain at least two SEAS faculty members, at least one of whom is tenured.

The examination has the dual purpose of verifying the adequacy of the student’s preparation for undertaking research in a chosen field and assessing the student’s ability to synthesize knowledge already acquired. Areas within SEAS have different customs regarding the detailed nature of the qualifying examination. For example, the format may principally involve the presentation and discussion of a potential dissertation topic. It may also include, to a lesser or greater degree, general questions in the chosen research field and related areas. Specifics are available on the SEAS website.

The qualifying examination should be taken in the fourth term; any extension beyond the fourth term must be approved by the CHD.

Three outcomes of the qualifying examination are possible. The exam committee may pass the student, fail the student, or (if it is the student's first attempt) judge the performance to be inconclusive. Within its discretion, the committee may stipulate further requirements, such as additional course work, a written examination, or presentation of a research proposal, as conditions that must be satisfied. If the qualifying examination is judged to be inconclusive, the student and committee may schedule a second examination, which must be conclusive. If the outcome of either examination is a failure, a student may not re-register, thus terminating degree candidacy.

Research and Dissertation

When the student passes the qualifying examination, the research advisor and student nominate a research committee, which oversees the student’s research and dissertation.

A research/dissertation committee exists throughout the rest of the student’s graduate career, with any necessary changes to its composition made by the student and research advisor. Any member of the research committee can serve as a source of information and advice for the student throughout subsequent graduate years, as can the members of the CHD. PhD students are expected to meet with members of their committees at least annually following the oral qualifying examination.

The committee usually consists of three or four Harvard faculty members who have agreed to serve, selected and chaired by the research supervisor (if SEAS faculty). The committee must include at least two SEAS faculty members, one of whom must be a senior faculty member. 

A dissertation must, in the judgment of the research committee, meet the standards of significant and original research. No formal prospectus is required. The dissertation should be a coherent document addressed to a broad audience in the subject area. A collection of manuscripts intended for publication as technical papers is not considered by SEAS to constitute an acceptable dissertation.

Final Oral Examination

When the dissertation is completed to the satisfaction of the research committee, generally in the fifth or sixth year, a final oral examination is scheduled at a time to which the committee has agreed.

This public examination devoted to the field of the dissertation is conducted by the student’s research committee. It consists of a presentation and defense of the dissertation itself and may also include more general questions relating to the field of the research.

At the end of the examination, the committee may accept the dissertation, possibly subject to revisions, or specify further requirements. Once the research committee has accepted the final dissertation, each member signs the dissertation acceptance certificate (DAC).

The final dissertation, including all required changes, must be submitted to the FAS Registrar’s Office by the appropriate deadline as published by the FAS Registrar’s Office or as listed in the Harvard Griffin GSAS Calendar. It is the student’s responsibility to know when their dissertation is due.

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