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Quantum Science and Engineering

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The graduate program in Quantum Science and Engineering accepts applications only for the PhD degree. Although graduate students can earn a continuing AM (Master of Arts) degree along the way to completing their PhDs, the program does not accept applications specifically for terminal AM degrees.


The objective of the Quantum Science and Engineering program is to prepare investigators with diverse backgrounds for research careers in which the concepts and methods of quantum mechanics are applied to innovative science and practical, useful platforms for quantum sensing, simulation, and computation. This objective will be met through a set of core courses and individually designed paths involving additional elective courses in physics, chemistry, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), research group rotations, qualifying examinations, independent research, and thesis writing.

Although no two PhD students follow precisely the same path, students should keep in mind the following general timeline.


Student Advisory Committee

The Student Advisory Committee (SAC) will oversee the advising process for all students. This will include creating the student’s Individual Advisory Committee (IAC), helping to create and approve the student’s Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) and assessing and developing the student advising programs for all QSE students.

Individual Advisory Committee

The SAC assigns each incoming graduate student a three-person IAC before they have identified a particular thesis advisor. The committee will meet on a regular basis as needed with the student to provide advice and guidance on curricular issues, professional development, and discussion of norms and expectations. One of the committee members will be the student’s academic advisor (see below). The role of the committee will also include advice and guidance on research and matching of the student with a particular research group.

Academic Advisor 

One member of the IAC will be assigned as the student’s academic advisor. They will help the student understand the courses available, degree requirements, and advise on the selection of research group rotations. Students and academic advisors are required to have a one-hour meeting every semester but are expected to meet monthly, at least briefly, until the TAC is formed (see below). In planning a program, students should study the catalog of Courses of Instruction offered by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and SEAS, as well as the description in the Programs of Study. After drawing up a tentative program, students should discuss it with their faculty advisors. Students are also welcome to discuss their plans at any time with the directors of graduate studies. 

Thesis Advisor

After the first year and laboratory rotations successfully completed, a student will select a thesis advisor who will then take on the remaining responsibilities of the academic advisor and direct the student’s doctoral research. The thesis advisor must be a QSE Core Faculty Member or in a related department (physics, computer science, electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, chemistry and chemical biology, or mathematics). Sometimes students may wish to do a substantial portion of their thesis research under the supervision of someone who is not a faculty member in a quantum science and engineering field. Such an arrangement must have the approval of both the student’s academic advisor and the Standing Committee on Higher Degrees in Quantum Science and Engineering (SCHDQSE). 

A few students may wish to design their own thesis projects, taking advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of QSE. These students will need to propose a research plan to their potential academic advisor(s). The academic advisor(s) will consult with the SCHDQSE as to the viability of the plan. For these students, the academic advisor(s) will serve on the student’s TAC. 

Thesis Advisory Committee

In consultation with their thesis advisor or academic advisor, each student will nominate to the Student Advisory Committee (SAC) a Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) to oversee the progress of their research. In most cases, this will be done by the beginning of the student’s third year. The membership of the TAC will be approved by the SAC. At the same time, the student’s proposed program of research will be reviewed and approved in writing by the TAC. The TAC will meet with the student at least once per year to review progress and offer advice. The TAC will normally have three faculty members, two of whom are program members. 

Program of Study (Credit and Course Requirements)

Each student is required to accumulate a total of 16 four-credit courses of credit, which can include any combination of 200- or 300-level Harvard courses in quantum science and engineering and related fields, graduate-level courses taken by official cross-registration at MIT, and units of reading and/or research time courses (300-level). 

In fulfilling this requirement, students must obtain grades of B- or better in nine four-credit courses specified as follows:

  1. Mandatory core courses: Four four-credit courses: (1) Foundations of Quantum Mechanics; (2) Quantum Optics; (3) Introduction to Quantum Information Science; and (4) Applied Quantum Systems.
  2. Focus courses: Two four-credit courses drawn from the QSE Program's official list. These courses would be fundamental to the student’s sub-area of research.
  3. Field courses: Three required four-credit courses, drawn from the QSE related departments list of graduate courses, with at least one outside the student’s area of specialization.

Note: Not all courses listed are given every year, and course offerings, numbers, and contents sometimes change. Therefore, students should confer with their advisors or with the chairs of the SCHDQSE about their program of study. Note also that the award of the continuing AM degree does not automatically qualify the student as a candidate for the PhD. Course descriptions can be found on the registrar’s website

Other fields courses and petitions to waive certain course requirements: With the approval of the SCHDQSE, a student may use 200-level courses or fields not officially listed for their focus courses. Upon entering the program, students may petition SCHDQSE to use courses previously taken (before arriving at Harvard) to meet certain course requirements. Students will submit, along with the petition, evidence of satisfactory course performance. 

The general requirements outlined above are a minimum standard and students will usually take additional courses in their selected fields as well as in others. A student need not fulfill all course requirements before beginning research.

As a result of an exchange agreement between the universities, graduate students in QSE at Harvard may also enroll in lecture courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The procedure is outlined under Cross-Registration.

Research Group Rotations

Each QSE PhD candidate is required to complete a minimum of two laboratory rotations. The two rotations are expected to be adequately distinct and ideally be in both science and engineering to gain firsthand exposure to new techniques and questions. Lab rotations are considered equivalent to course requirements and therefore must be done before a student can take their qualifying oral exam (see below). Students will submit their lab rotation application before starting their second rotation and no later than February 1 of their first year of study for review by SCHDQSE. More details on lab rotations can be found on this program page.  


In addition to research assistantships (RAs), teaching fellowships (TFs) are important sources of support for graduate students after their first year. Because of the importance of teaching skills for a successful quantum science and engineering career, a one-term TF is required of all graduate students, generally within the first three years of study. This teaching experience provides an opportunity for students to develop the communication skills that are vital for careers in academics and industry.

To fulfill the teaching requirement, students must serve as a teaching fellow at least one fall or spring term for at least 15 hours per week (3/8-time). The TF position should involve a teaching component and not merely grading.


There is no formal language requirement for the PhD in QSE. 

Qualifying Oral Examination

Each student is also expected to pass an oral examination given by the student's Qualifying Exam Committee (QEC) (see below), ideally by the end of the fourth term in residence. This oral exam will emphasize general knowledge, reasoning, the ability to formulate a research plan, and the ability to engage in high-level scientific discourse. The purpose of the examination is two-fold: The examination aids in estimating the candidate’s potential for performing research at a level required for the doctoral thesis, and serves as a diagnostic tool for determining whether the candidate requires changes to the program of research and study.

For the examination, each student is asked to select, prepare, and discuss in depth a topic in their specialization field, and to answer questions from the faculty committee about that specific topic and, more broadly, about the student’s larger subfield. Originality is welcomed but not required.

The student selects the topic—preferably but not necessarily related to the proposed field of thesis research—and then submits a title and abstract together with a list of completed course requirements (described above under Program of Study). The student then confers in detail with their thesis advisor about the topic to be discussed and concrete expectations for the examination. The QEC provides approval of the topic. To ensure adequate preparation, this conference should take place at the earliest possible date, typically one to two months before the examination.

Oral examinations are evaluated on the knowledge and understanding students demonstrate about their chosen topic as well as about their general subfield. Students are also judged on the clarity and organization of their expositions. The examining committee may take into account other information about the candidate’s performance as a graduate student. The student will pass the examination if the committee believes that the student has demonstrated adequate comprehension of the chosen topic and the larger field, as well as an ability to perform the thesis research required for the doctoral degree. Students who do not pass the qualifying oral examination on their first attempt will be given instructions for improvement and encouraged by the committee to take a second examination at a later date.

Qualifying Exam Committee

Each student will have an individual Qualifying Exam Committee, the membership of which will be approved by the SCHDQSE. The committee is responsible for developing and administering the qualifying examination and for making pass/fail recommendations to the SCHDQSE. Normally, the Qualifying Exam Committee would have three faculty members, one of whom is the student’s prospective thesis advisor. If the student’s immediate research advisor is from outside of Harvard, that person would constitute a fourth member of the committee. The committee should include two members who are QSE program members, with one person outside the specific type of research focus (e.g. for an experimentalist, there would be one theorist on the committee).

The SCHDQSE may, upon petition, grant a deferment of the examination for up to one year. Students who have not passed their oral examinations by the end of their third year of graduate study must seek approval from the SCHDQSE prior to being allowed to register for a fourth year of graduate study. If satisfactory arrangements cannot be made, the student will be withdrawn from the program.

Year Three and Beyond

In order to become acquainted with the various programs of research in progress and promising areas for thesis research, students should attend seminars and colloquia, and consult with their faculty advisors and upper-level graduate students. A list of the current faculty and their research programs is available online.

The QSE program will have an annual retreat. The purpose of the retreat is to bring the entire QSE community together to learn about research progress in QSE both at Harvard and elsewhere. Since the retreat is a major program occasion, all students and program faculty will be expected to attend, and advanced students will be expected to present (orally or through a poster) their thesis research to date.

At least yearly, all students are required to give a short talk about their research at one of the QSE-related gatherings, such as the Joint Quantum Seminar, in front of the invited speaker.

Academic Residence

Ordinarily, a candidate must be enrolled and in residence for at least two years (four terms) of full-time study in the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Ideally, the PhD is completed within six and a half years. The student’s TAC reviews the student's progress each year. For financial residence requirements, see Financial Aid.

Criteria for Satisfactory Progress

In addition to the policies specified by Harvard Griffin GSAS, the QSE program identifies satisfactory progress for graduate students by several key criteria.

The student is expected to identify a potential thesis advisor before taking the qualifying exam. The student must be formally accepted by an appropriate thesis advisor and arrange for the appointment of the TAC within six months of passing the qualifying oral examination.

During each subsequent year, the student must submit a progress report in the form specified by the SCHDQSE. The progress report must be approved by the student’s TAC who will evaluate the student’s progress toward the completion of the degree. 

For other types of extensions or leave-of-absence policies, consult the Registration section of Policies.

Dissertation Defense

Following the qualifying exam, the student should arrange a TAC, which consists of at least three faculty members and is chaired by a member of the QSE program (see above). At least two members of the TAC, including the chair, must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) or the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). A non-FAS or a non-SEAS thesis advisor should be a member of the dissertation committee but cannot serve as its official chair.

The dissertation defense consists of an oral final examination delivered to the TAC that involves a searching analysis of the student’s thesis. If the student’s coursework does not indicate a wide proficiency in the field of the thesis, the examination may be extended to test this proficiency as well.

The candidate must provide draft copies of the completed thesis for members of the dissertation committee at least three weeks in advance of the examination. The program requires one bound copy of the final thesis, which students can order through the online dissertation submission system. See the Dissertation section of Policies for detailed requirements.

Contact Info 

Harvard Quantum Initiative

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