Satisfactory Progress

Until attainment of the PhD degree, satisfactory progress is required for Biological Sciences in Public Health (BPH) students to continue enrollment in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Biological Sciences in Public Health determines progress by considering the following: performance in courses; satisfactory performance on the preliminary qualifying examination; demonstration of adequate research ability and/or level of improvement; acceptable ethical conduct; and participation in other scholarly activities of the student’s program.

The First Two Years

First-Year Advisors

The BPH program director is responsible for advising first-year students. With assistance from the program director, graduate students select courses and laboratory rotations that best suit their needs. The program director will provide academic and non­academic guidance until a dissertation advisor is selected, typically at the end of year one. Thereafter, most direction given to students will be from the dissertation advisor and from the dissertation advisory committee.

Courses and Grades

In general, the BPH program expects that students will receive B or better grades in core and required classes to reflect their command of these topics. If students do not receive a B or better, they may be required to take additional courses to make up this deficiency. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) states that the minimum standard for satisfactory work in the Graduate School is a B average in each academic year. A grade of C or Incomplete is offset by a grade of A, and a D by two A’s. Pluses and minuses are ignored for this calculation.

Students must take three 5-credit core courses. In addition, students must take at least 7.5 credits of approved courses in which critical reading and discussion of research papers are a major focus. In addition to the above requirements, students must take a minimum of 5 credits of additional coursework (either critical reading or core courses) to be selected in consultation with the dissertation advisor. It is recommended that students particularly seek out advanced courses that include a proposal writing exercise to prepare for the Preliminary Qualifying Examination. Each student designs an individualized, flexible curriculum plan with advice from the BPH program director and his or her advisor.

The particular courses a student is required to take may vary based upon his or her academic background. In addition to the core curriculum, some students are required to take additional courses to ensure a broad background in basic science and/or to correct any deficiencies in their grades.

Waiver of Course Requirements

For some students who have successfully completed graduate-level coursework, BPH course requirements may be waived if graduate-level competence is demonstrated to the program director before the end of the first semester of year one. A “Course Waiver Form” may be requested from the BPH Program Office. A signed copy will be kept in the student’s file as documentation of the director’s authorization to grant an exemption to a student from further coursework in these areas.


BPH students are required to do official laboratory rotations before selecting a dissertation advisor who is a member of the BPH faculty. Laboratory rotations permit students to gain familiarity with several different laboratories, not only to learn concepts and techniques, but also to help select a laboratory in which they will complete their dissertation research. Students perform 2 to 3 nine-week laboratory rotations in different laboratories and receive a total of five credits per rotation. By the end of the first year, all students are expected to have chosen a dissertation laboratory.

Before beginning any rotation, the laboratory head and the student must reach an agreement about what the project will involve and the length of the rotation. In addition, the laboratory head and student should explore whether or not this is a potential dissertation laboratory. To receive credit, a Rotation Registration Form must be completed and signed by the student and laboratory head prior to beginning the rotation. This form is then submitted to the BPH Program Office for final approval.

At the culmination of each laboratory rotation, the faculty advisor submits a Rotation Evaluation Form to the BPH Program Office. Students present research from their rotations at the annual Assembly Day, held each spring. Students also meet with the program director to discuss their laboratory rotation performance.

The Conduct of Science

Medical Sciences 300, 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 BPH Program must register to take this course, generally in the fall of their second year.

Laboratory Safety

All incoming BPH graduate students are required to take the Harvard University Laboratory Safety Radiation Safety Courses (scheduled during orientation) before beginning any type of lab work at Harvard. Students who have already completed the Harvard courses will not be required to repeat them. All students entering a dissertation lab not located at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health must report to the safety office at that institution for additional information on training.

Credit for Work Done Elsewhere

The program may excuse a student from some of the program course requirements in consideration of courses taken elsewhere. Only courses taken after the bachelor’s degree may be given official GSAS credit toward the PhD degree. Courses for official GSAS credit cannot appear on the student’s undergraduate transcript. The maximum allowable credit for courses taken elsewhere is eight half-courses awarded at the discretion of the BPH Curriculum Committee.

Selecting a Dissertation Advisor

Typically after completion of two rotations, and no later than the beginning of the second year, BPH students are required to select a dissertation advisor who is a member of the BPH faculty. To formalize the academic and financial responsibilities of the dissertation advisor, a Dissertation Declaration Form must be signed and submitted to the BPH Program Office.

Preliminary Qualifying Examinations (PQE)

At the end of the second year, BPH students take a Preliminary Qualifying Examination (PQE). The purpose of the PQE is to assess the student’s preparation and ability to embark on original scientific investigation. The primary goal of the PQE is to evaluate the student’s ability to identify and articulate a clear hypothesis for his/her dissertation topic based upon familiarity with relevant literature, to propose critical experiments designed to prove or to disprove the hypothesis, and to interpret experimental outcomes in a manner that indicates awareness of the limitations of the methods used. It is not expected that preliminary data will be presented to support the hypothesis.

Second year BPH students preparing to take their PQE must first complete the BPH Preliminary Qualifying Exam Course Form, listing their coursework taken to fulfill program requirements. The BPH Program must approve of progress before the student proceeds in the PQE process. Then, students are expected to choose, in consultation with their faculty mentor, a topic for their exam. The PQE topic is ordinarily related to the topic of the student’s dissertation. A PQE examination committee is chosen by the student and faculty advisor, consisting of a PQE chair and two additional examiners, and must meet with program approval. Normally, the PQE chair is from the same department as the student, and should be an experienced examiner. Of the two additional examiners, one must be a member of the BPH faculty and the other may be an external (non-BPH) faculty member.

During the preparation of the proposal, students may consult with faculty and other students. Consultation on general issues (clarification, technical advice, etc.) is appropriate, but solicitation regarding ideas for specific aims or experimental design is inappropriate. Faculty members, including dissertation advisors, should not read written drafts of the proposal in order to provide extensive help. Further, students should not seek feedback from the members of their exam committee.

Ten calendar days prior to the scheduled exam, the student shall submit to the chair and members of the PQE a printed copy of these guidelines and a ten-page dissertation proposal (excluding references). A copy of the proposal should also be provided to the BPH Program Office and the dissertation advisor. The proposal should be no more than 10 pages (excluding references), single spaced, Arial font size 11. The exam proposal should include the following sections:

  1. Specific Aims: List the broad, long-term objectives and the goal of the specific research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology. Half of one page is recommended.
  2. Background and Significance: Briefly sketch the background leading to the proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill. State concisely the importance and health relevance of the research described in this application by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives. If the aims of the application are achieved, state how scientific knowledge will be advanced. Describe the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services or preventative interventions. Summarize your preliminary work, and work of others, that support the proposed research. Two to three pages are recommended.
  3. Research Design and Methods: Describe the research design conceptual framework, procedures, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Briefly summarize how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any new methods that may be developed, and advantages over existing methodologies. Describe any novel concepts, approaches, tools, or technologies for the proposed studies. Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Highlight anticipated outcomes and potential pitfalls. Six to eight pages are recommended.
  4. References (author, title, journal, inclusive pages, year)

The PQE chair will serve not only as an examiner, but will also oversee the administering of the exam and arbitrate problems. The chair will also see that the PQE Report Form is completed and on file in the BPH Program Office. The dissertation advisor will be asked to attend the PQE exam to review the student’s preparation for the exam with the committee, but will not be present during the oral examination. For the PQE examination, students should be prepared to defend and explain the hypothesis, methods and anticipated results. The student should be ready to respond to questions based on knowledge obtained through the required courses, seminars and reading from the area of research from which the topic was chosen. The format is a fifteen-minute student presentation summarizing the proposal, followed by questions from the examiners. The oral examination will last about 2 hours and is expected to cover areas that are both directly and tangentially related to the proposal topic. Outcomes are: Pass, Pass with Qualifications, or Fail.


Advising of students is multi-layered, distributed among advisors, committees, program heads, program coordinators, BPH, and GSAS. The BPH program provides all students with a set of academic guidelines that describes advising. In general, first-and second-year students are monitored by the BPH program director. After a student selects a dissertation laboratory, a dissertation advisory committee is formed. In parallel with the dissertation advisor, it monitors the student’s progress, offers assistance, and determines when the student can write and defend the dissertation.


While the program does not have a teaching requirement, the BPH program encourages interested students to gain meaningful teaching experience as part of their graduate training. Students may undertake additional teaching or tutoring responsibilities, but only with permission of their dissertation research advisor, if they have one, and permission of their program head.

Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC)

The purpose of the Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) is to help set research goals and to monitor progress toward the completion of degree requirements. Ordinarily, the DAC is composed of three faculty members, in addition to the dissertation advisor, who serves in an ex-officio capacity. At least one member must be outside the student’s department and at least one member must be part of the BPH faculty. Selection of the DAC should be made by the student in consultation with his/her dissertation advisor and the membership of DAC communicated to the BPH Program Office. Ordinarily, the DAC chair will be a member of the BPH Program. Students bear primary responsibility for setting up the DAC and ensuring that it meets every six to nine months to assess student progress. At each DAC meeting the student shall meet privately with the committee, with the dissertation advisor out of the room, and vice-versa for the dissertation advisor, with the student out of the room. A formal report must be filed with the BPH Program Office after each meeting documenting progress to date and recommendations for further work. This report includes a self-evaluation by the student, feedback from the dissertation advisor, and recommendations from the DAC committee.

Dissertation Proposal

Students submit a written dissertation proposal to the dissertation advisory committee within six months of successfully completing the Preliminary Qualifying Exam. The DAC and student will meet to discuss the proposal, and committee members will provide the student with feedback, guidance and suggestions to help define the dissertation project in terms of scope, direction and general quality. A copy of the dissertation proposal should be attached to the DAC Report and submitted to the BPH Program Office. At this initial DAC meeting, it is not expected that extensive preliminary studies have been completed, but the scope and focus of the dissertation research should be defined. A clear plan for completing all of the work required for the PhD within five years should be presented. While it is understood the plans will evolve over the course of dissertation research, especially since highly creative projects engender some risks and delays of unexpected nature arise, students are encouraged to strive for this goal. The proposal should include the following sections:

1. Abstract

2. Specific Aims

3. Background and Significance

4. Experimental Design, including expected results and interpretations

5. References (author, title, journal, inclusive pages, year)

Timing of DAC meetings

Prior to the beginning of the 6th semester, all students are expected to have completed their PQE and to have had a DAC meeting to discuss their proposal. The BPH Program is required to give the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences an accounting of student progress via Satisfactory Progress Reports, a key component of which is regular DAC meetings for students in G-3 and above. Unsatisfactory progress will be reported for any student who fails to have DAC meetings at 6-9 month intervals. However, this may be changed to satisfactory progress at the submission of a DAC report to the BPH Program Office. In addition, students are strongly encouraged to monitor their course/grade records to ensure that they are complete and accurate. It is anticipated that DAC meetings will be more frequent for students G-4 and above. All students must demonstrate to the DAC committee a plausible track towards degree completion by year 5 or they may not be allowed to continue in the program. Beginning in year G-6 and above, the BPH program director should be invited to attend all DAC meeting to ensure that progress towards degree completion is being made.

Organization of the DAC meeting

1. Student and faculty alternately leave the room. To provide an opportunity for both student and advisor to communicate with DAC members on a confidential basis, the meeting will start with the student leaving the room and then the advisor leaving the room upon the students return. In the absence of the student, the advisor will have a chance to present his/her assessment of the student’s progress and whether the student is on course to graduate in a timely fashion. The student self-evaluation portion of the DAC report form should be discussed (this should have been reviewed by the student with their P.I. prior to the DAC meeting). In the absence of the advisor, the student may likewise communicate his/her own assessment of his/her progress and whether the advisor and the laboratory environment provide the support that he/she needs. Again, the student self-evaluation form can help frame this discussion. This is also an opportunity to share with the committee any other problems of a confidential nature with which the student needs help.

2. Student presentation. The main part of the meeting will consist of a 20-40 minute presentation by the student of results and plans. Committee members will typically interrupt the presentation with questions, and the presentation is followed by a discussion of progress and future plans. The advisor should interject minimally so that the student has the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the field and scientific maturity surrounding ongoing and future work. The second and subsequent DAC meetings should include a written 3-page Research Progress Report:

A. Specific Aims: If the aims have been modified from the original DAC meeting proposal, the revised aims should be presented and the reasons for the modifications.

B. Studies and Results: The studies directed toward specific aims and the positive and negative results obtained should be presented, as well as any technical problems encountered and how addressed.

C. Significance: A brief discussion on the significance of the findings to the current state of the scientific field.

D. Plans: A summary of plans to address the remaining Specific Aims, including any important modifications to the original plans.

3. Comments/feedback given to student by DAC. The DAC should comment on student’s progress on experimentation and whether it has the potential to lead to one or more first-author publications. The committee should evaluate the student’s ability to think independently, including development of hypotheses, practical approaches for testing hypotheses, critical interpretation of data, understanding relevance of results in light of current thinking in the field, and judging how to effectively pursue the line of investigation.

4. Reporting student’s progress. The BPH program director will review the DAC report form, but confidential concerns of the DAC should be directly communicated if they arise. These communications do not need to be shared directly with the student or dissertation advisor, and may be verbal or written.

DAC Oversight for Granting the PhD

GSAS requires each student to complete a body of primary research of publishable quality. While a first-author research paper is not required to attain the degree, the vast majority of graduating students will have at least one published first-author, peer-reviewed, primary research paper at least submitted or largely prepared prior to graduation. In addition, the DAC committee should evaluate the scientific maturity, independence and original thinking in considering the student’s readiness to graduate. When the DAC committee agrees that the student has met the requirements for earning a PhD and is ready to begin writing his/her dissertation, the Committee will “check the box” on the student’s DAC Report Form that indicates this. The student’s dissertation defense must take place within 3–6 months of the date on which the box is checked.

Application for the Degree

The candidate obtains two forms:

1. Application for Degree: Available online; to be signed by the director and submitted to the registrar in Cambridge by the student.

2. Dissertation Defense Committee Form: Obtained at the BPH Program Office and signed by the director.

Dissertation Acceptance Certificate

Before the examination, the BPH program office will provide the chairperson of the exam committee with two copies of the Dissertation Acceptance Certificate. Both copies must be signed by all readers of the dissertation at the end of the examination and returned to the BPH program office. The BPH program office forwards one signed certificate to the GSAS Registrar’s Office in Cambridge. If extensive corrections are to be made, the BPH program office will hold the certificate until the chair of the examination committee notifies them that corrections have been made and approved. The second form serves as the official record of the examination for the BPH program.

Binding and Delivery of the Dissertation Following the Examination

Following the examination, the student, with the help of the dissertation advisor, should make any necessary corrections to the dissertation. It is then the student’s responsibility to submit copies of the dissertation in the following manner:

1. Electronic copy submitted online (containing a scanned copy of the Acceptance Certificate) through ProQuest by the specified date for the term.

2. One bound copy to the BPH Program Office.

3. One bound copy to the Dissertation Advisor’s department.

BPH Vacation Policy

Graduate study in Biological Sciences in Public Health is considered a full-time endeavor. Students are entitled to official student holidays and vacation days observed by the University or the institutions at which their dissertation laboratories are located. Graduate study is a year-round activity that continues between terms and throughout the summer months. Students planning to be away at other times may do so only with the approval of their program director, or their dissertation advisor if they are in a dissertation research laboratory.

For more extensive information about requirements for Biological Sciences in Public Health, students should consult the BPH Program Office.

Print this Page