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Human Evolutionary Biology

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

Course Requirements

Normally, PhD students in human evolutionary biology will take at least eight four-credit courses in human evolutionary biology and related areas during their first two years in residence. These will include the HEB graduate proseminar and one course in each of four identified primary areas: human evolution, genetics, physiology, and behavior and culture. One of the four area requirement courses would include the student's primary research area. Each student’s program of study must receive the approval of their advisors.

Students must acquire both theoretical grounding and technical skills. This means gaining experience with designing research projects, collecting data in the laboratory or field, and analyzing those data. To achieve this, students must take appropriate laboratory courses or undergo training in a field setting as determined in consultation with the faculty. Competence in statistics is required of all candidates; any coursework necessary to achieve such competence should be completed by the time of the qualifying examinations. Depending on the nature of the research to be undertaken for the PhD, the faculty may prescribe further skills, such as fluency in a field language, advanced laboratory skills, or further quantitative skills.

Students must maintain an overall grade average of B.

No grade of Incomplete can be used to fulfill any departmental requirement.

Students may petition to have as many as eight graduate-level courses from another university accepted toward fulfillment of their PhD coursework requirements.

Language Requirement

There is no general language requirement. Language training is required when appropriate to a student’s research.

Grade Requirements

The minimum standard for satisfactory work in the Graduate School is a “B” average in each academic year. A grade of “C” or “INC” is offset by a grade of “A”, and a “D” by two “As”; no account is taken of plus or minus. Grades of “UNS” or “E” or an unexcused “ABS” are unacceptable. A course in which a student receives an “E” or a permanent “INC” or “ABS” may be retaken for credit at a later time; both grades will appear on the student’s transcript. For the four HEB area requirement courses, the minimum grade is a B or better.

Incompletes are granted at the discretion of course instructors. Students normally may not request Incompletes of instructors who will be on leave the following academic term. Students who are non-resident (traveling scholars or on leave) are subject to the same deadlines as resident students (i.e., an Incomplete must be completed during the term following that in which it was taken); otherwise students must petition the Harvard Griffin GSAS dean for student affairs for more time to complete the work. Students normally may not take more than one Incomplete in a term. Incompletes in the proseminar or any other course taken in the first year are unacceptable. A prolonged record of Incompletes may jeopardize a student’s chances of obtaining teaching fellowships and financial awards in the department.

Students are expected to familiarize themselves with general Harvard Griffin GSAS rules (found in Policies). In most HEB classes, graduate students will be asked to affirm the Harvard College Honor Code by signature upon submission of final papers.

Master of Arts (AM)

PhD students in human evolutionary biology may apply for a non-terminal master's degree (AM) in their second or third year, after they have passed eight four-credit courses, including the proseminar and four area courses, and have satisfactorily completed the mock-NSF requirement.

All courses offered for the AM must have been passed with a minimum grade of B-. The overall grade average should be at least B+.

A minimum of one year in residence is required. For those who do not attain the PhD, a terminal AM degree may be awarded when appropriate.


Graduate students are expected to teach in one or more terms during their careers at Harvard as part of their professional training. At least one term of teaching is required.

Normally, graduate students do not teach until the third year.

First-time teaching fellows must participate in the Bok Center teaching orientations.

Students in their third and fourth years have priority for teaching fellowship awards.


Upon admission, students will be assigned a faculty member in human evolutionary biology to serve as a thesis research advisor, as well as a secondary advisor in the Department, based on compatibility of research interests. In the week before fall term begins, first-year students will meet with their primary faculty advisor to plan a program of study that takes into account their previous training and current academic interests. This means that the four area requirement courses may be different among first-year students based on their backgrounds. Students are encouraged to consult freely with their secondary advisors or any other faculty member on matters pertaining to their programs.  

Every student must have an advisor who is a faculty member in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at all times. It is the student’s responsibility to ensure this. Any student who does not have an advisor at the beginning of a term must withdraw from the department at the end of that term if arrangements for a new advisor have not been made by that time. A change in advisors is subject to the approval of the new advisor, the director of graduate studies, and the HEB faculty. Failure to make arrangements for an advisor may result in dismissal from the department.

The faculty will annually assess the progress of each student and this appraisal will be communicated to the student.

Students may contact the department administrator to address any questions and/or issues related to the advising process.

Qualifying Examination

Successful completion of the graduate proseminar and four area requirement courses constitutes a major portion of the qualifying examination process.

In addition, students must submit a draft of a research proposal (“the mock NSF”) and be examined orally by the faculty. The oral examination is based on the research proposal, which students develop in consultation with their advisors, as well as their command of relevant areas of human evolutionary biology. The proposal should be written in the form of a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant application to the National Science Foundation (NSF). It should be circulated to the faculty at least two weeks before the oral examination is to occur. Students will receive questions from the faculty about their proposal at least two days before their oral exam, in time to prepare answers for the oral exam. At the start of the oral exam, students are also expected to prepare a short (15 minutes) overview of the project and present it.  Students are expected to fulfill the requirement by the end of their second year in residence. Successful completion of the “mock NSF” requirement is the final step in the qualifying examination process.

If the qualifying examinations are passed conditionally or, if despite failure the student is encouraged to continue in the PhD program, the human evolutionary biology faculty will determine a program the student must complete within a specified period of time in order to become a doctoral candidate in the department. This program may involve further coursework, papers, and/or special examinations in specific areas of weakness, or the candidate may be required to retake some part of the qualifying examination process. Failure to pass the qualifying examination can be grounds for dismissal from the graduate program. 

The Dissertation

The Dissertation Prospectus

After completion of the qualifying examination process, the candidate, in consultation with their advisors, will select a dissertation research topic. The faculty will then approve a dissertation prospectus committee of at least three members, at least two of whom normally shall be members of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. The student, in consultation with their committee, will further develop the scope of the dissertation research topic.

By no later than the end of the seventh term, the candidate will submit a dissertation (or thesis) prospectus to this committee that embodies the general planning of the dissertation research work and shows what contribution it will make to the field. The prospectus should give a concise statement of the problems being studied or hypotheses tested and a description of the manner in which the field or laboratory investigation will be carried out. The prospectus should conform to the format and length of an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant application. Ideally, the prospectus will also be a grant application. The candidate will meet with the dissertation prospectus committee to discuss the prospectus and consider any necessary revisions including the possibility that an alternate prospectus would be required.

Approval of a dissertation prospectus including any revisions is expected by the end of the sixth term in residence; failure to gain approval by the end of the seventh term may be grounds for dismissal from the program.

The Dissertation and Defense

An approved dissertation is normally expected by the end of the 12th term after entry into the graduate program. The dissertation advisory committee will be composed of at least three readers, at least two of whom will be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At least one reader will be a member of the human evolutionary biology faculty, and at least one reader will normally be outside the department. A complete draft of the dissertation should be received by all members of the dissertation advisory committee at least two or more months before the approved dissertation is due at the Registrar’s Office; the candidate may well have to advance this due date for readers outside the Boston area. The text of the dissertation, exclusive of charts, figures, and appendices, may not exceed 250 typewritten pages.

The form of the dissertation may vary depending on the student’s research but the content should ordinarily be substantive enough to represent or to produce at least three published articles.

The dissertation defense consists of an oral presentation for a general audience followed by an oral examination attended by the dissertation advisory committee and other interested faculty. Only after successful completion of this examination and the incorporation of any revisions required by the dissertation advisory committee may a candidate’s dissertation be approved for submission to the FAS Registrar. A complete draft of the dissertation must be submitted within five years after passing the qualifying examinations, and the dissertation approved within six years of passing those examinations.

Failure to meet the deadline for completion may constitute grounds for dismissal from the program. Students may apply for re-admission to the graduate program through the Graduate School.

PhD dissertation manuscripts must conform to the requirements described online in the policy pages on dissertations

Contact Info

Human Evolutionary Biology Website

Professor Joe Henrich 
Director of Graduate Studies

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