Requirements for the PhD

Also available at the OEB Graduate Student Site

Prescription Courses

These courses are personalized to ensure that we all have a strong, well-rounded academic background. In recent years, the procedure by which students are assigned these courses has changed. Upon your arrival, expect to receive a tentative list of courses which have been determined by the Prescription Committee. Regardless of prescriptions, each student must take at least four graded half courses prior to graduation.

Each student should confer with his/her advisor to

  1. determine if there are any courses on the tentative list which may not be necessary and
  2. prepare a tentative course of study beyond the required prescription courses.

If all is in agreement with the list you receive, it is not necessary to meet with the Prescription committee. However, if you would like to petition for a change, you will meet with the committee to make your request. Based on your prior training, an appropriate course of study will then be decided.

  • The Committee will require you to meet the content of the following Harvard courses before your Qualifying Examination:
  • Mathematics - college-level calculus; 
  • Statistics;
  • A reasonable combination of courses in cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, and evolutionary biology; 
  • 'Kingdom' course - A course that deals with the systematics, structure, function and ecology of at least one major group of animals or plants (e.g., OEB xx, xx). 

Qualifying Examination:

This is an oral examination which should be taken before the end of the second year of graduate study or prior to the completion of sixteen half-courses. Prescriptions must be satisfied prior to the examination, i.e. course completed with a grade of B- or better. Exceptions may be made by petition to the Graduate Committee.

The goal of the Qualifying Examination is to assess whether the student can present a well-designed research framework for her/his dissertation, and to examine the student’s knowledge of broad areas of knowledge. Students should look upon the Qualifying Examination as the last time in their academic career in which they will be asked to review what they know, and to synthesize and integrate their knowledge of organismal and evolutionary biology. As such, it is an opportunity to learn and review; after this point, students will be focused on their particular area of research and may not again have the opportunity to think widely for many years.

The Qualifying Examination Committee will consist of the student's advisor acting as Chairman, plus at least three additional individuals. At least two of the additional members must be members of the OEB faculty. The overall composition of the Examination Committee must be approved by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee before a student submits the Qualifying Exam notice to the Graduate Office.

The student should arrange an examination time by contacting committee members. Three hours should be allotted for the meeting, though examinations often are shorter in duration. Students should be aware that many faculty are not available to participate in examinations when school is not in session. Students are advised to remind faculty of the time and place of the meeting several days before the examination.

During the exam students will be tested on three broad topics pertinent to, but not restricted to, the specific topic of the proposed or ongoing dissertation studies. Topics should overlap little and should be broad in scope. For each topic a syllabus outline for a course covering the topic should be prepared. This will serve as a guide for the Committee members to begin asking questions, though committee members are not limited to asking questions directly relevant to the syllabi. Many students meet with committee members prior to the examination to discuss what sorts of questions might be asked and to receive advice and recommendations on specific material which may be worth reviewing. There are no set guidelines on syllabus format; they should be modeled after those commonly distributed at the beginning of OEB courses. Students should consult with their advisors on exact format.

In addition, the student will be expected to prepare a written thesis research proposal for the Qualifying Exam Committee. There is no set format for the proposal, but the guidelines for NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants are one often followed format. Students should consult with their advisor about format. In the examination, students will present a brief oral presentation on the proposal, lasting no more than 15-20 minutes, not counting questions (recalling that committee members will have read the proposal, so that it is neither necessary nor desirable to review everything in it).

The syllabi and thesis proposal must be distributed to committee members no less than two weeks prior to the examination, as well as to the graduate program coordinator. Failure to do so will result in postponement of the examination. Materials may be distributed electronically, but when doing so, the student should inquire whether any committee members would prefer to receive hard copies.

The Committee Chairman (the advisor) will be in charge of the examination. At the outset, the student will be asked to leave the room so that the committee can discuss the student’s progress to date and to review the courses prescribed and confirm that they have been taken. The student will then make her/his oral presentation, after which committee members will ask questions. Usually committee members take turns, each asking several questions, with several rounds of such questioning. It is up to the Chairman whether he/she wishes to ask questions or simply moderate the proceedings. At the end of the examination, students will again be asked to leave the room. Students should not be concerned if the committee discussion takes more than a few minutes—sometimes committee members get off track and are discussing issues other than the student’s performance.

After the exam, students who passed the Qualifying Examination shall be promptly notified and approved for continuation of dissertation studies and advancement to Doctoral Candidacy. At least one term should ordinarily elapse between the qualifying exam and when the Thesis Examination can be held. The Committee may pass the student, but prescribe additional coursework or other additional work (such as writing a review paper on a particular topic).

If the Qualifying Examination reveals serious deficiencies, the committee may require: (1) that the student be reexamined at a later date, or (2) that the student not be admitted to candidacy for the doctoral degree. In the latter case, the student subsequently will be orally examined by one or more faculty members designated by the committee and a judgment rendered.

If the committee finds the student lacking the necessary qualifications to continue the Ph.D. degree, it will recommend that further candidacy be terminated not later than the end of the ongoing academic year. The recommendation to terminate must be reviewed and approved by the Graduate Committee and by all OEB faculty members. The student, together with the advisor, may appeal any such decision by submitting to the Graduate Committee written arguments for a reversal of the decision to terminate. Under such circumstances, the case will be further reviewed by the Graduate Committee as well as by the Department and a final decision rendered.

1.    By end of Fall semester exam period of your second year: 

  • Send three topics of interest plus a proposed Qualifying Exam Committee to the Graduate Committee.

2.    One month before the Qualifying Examination: 

  • Send a formal note to the Graduate Committee Chairman and to the OEB Departmental Office with the time and location of your exam.

3.    Two weeks before the Qualifying Examination: 

  • Send your thesis research proposal and syllabus outlines for the courses you propose for each of your exam topics.

4.    The Week before the Qualifying Examination: 

  • Pick up the blue folder from Chris Preheim. This contains the OEB paperwork for the exam session. Send reminder note to committee members.

5.    On the day of the Qualifying Examination bring: 

  • Research proposal Presentation 
  • Blue folder

6.    After the Qualifying Examination: 

  • Return signed Blue folder to Chris Preheim 

Teaching Requirement

The department has a two semester teaching requirement for completion of the degree. Most will fulfill this requirement in Year 2 and Year 4, since part of the annual stipend in those years is tied to this teaching service. Teaching in years 1 is not allowed and in year 3 will only be allowed with the approval of the Graduate Committee. . The department guarantees six semesters of support by way of teaching; in the absence of external funding, most students teach both semesters in their fifth and sixth years. No support is guaranteed beyond the sixth year; occasionally, students take longer than six years to complete their degrees and in some cases, such students are able to obtain teaching positions either within OEB or from other departments.

Thesis Conferences

In the Thesis Conference, students have a relatively early opportunity to review with their advisor and the Thesis Conference Committee the thesis project, its progress and future potential. The first Thesis Conference should be held no later than one year after the Qualifying Examination and at one year intervals thereafter. The student should present orally a brief account of any results obtained and plans for additional research. The Committee should indicate to the student whether it anticipates that the thesis will be acceptable. It should also suggest improvement where needed. The conference is not intended to be an oral "examination,” but the committee must approve of the student’s progress and plans. If the committee does not approve, then the student will be considered not to be making “Satisfactory Progress” and a plan must be prepared to return to good standing within six months. Failure to do so may lead the Committee to recommend dismissal from the graduate program. Students more than six months late in holding a committee meeting will automatically be considered to not be making Satisfactory Progress.

The Thesis Conference Committee will consist of the student's advisor, who will serve as chairman, and at least—but not limited to—two other members. At least three of the members of the committee must be faculty members of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added after consultation with the advisor. The overall composition of the committee must be approved by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee. It is presumed that this committee will also constitute the Thesis Examination Committee. In some situations, it may not be possible to schedule a meeting at which all committee members can attend. With permission of the advisor and the Chairman of the Graduate Committee, one member may be absent from the meeting, as long as arrangements are made for the student to meet separately with that committee member.

GSAS Satisfactory Progress Requirements

All students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences must be making satisfactory progress in order to be eligible for any type of financial aid. The following seven provisions are the general definition of satisfactory progress adopted by several departments as modified by OEB.

  1. During the first years of graduate study, any student who is permitted to register is considered to be making satisfactory progress.
  2. The second year student must have completed prescribed courses, and must have passed the Qualifying Examination by the end of the second year. [Note: students can petition for later exams]
  3. A prospective third year student must have achieved the minimum grade point average required by this Faculty. [See “Grade Requirements” below]
  4. Students in their third year and beyond must hold a yearly Thesis Conference as described above and must be judged to be making satisfactory progress. 
  5. Fourth year students must participate in the G4 symposium in the spring of their fourth year. Participation in the symposium is necessary to access the final $3,000 of student research funds.
  6. A student who has not met degree requirements or an established deadline may, with department endorsement, be granted an extension for up to one year and remain eligible for financial aid during this period. At the end of the grace period, the student must have rectified the deficiency and be in compliance with all other established criteria in order to be considered to be making satisfactory progress.

Ordinarily, only one such period of grace will be granted a student during graduate studies.

  1. The calendar of requirements as noted above may be interrupted by a single year of department approved leave. In the special case of a student who wishes to obtain a professional degree, the approved leave period can be extended beyond a single year.

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. In many departments, students are expected to maintain an average well above the GSAS minimum. For OEB prescribed courses, the minimum grade is a B- or better.

Getting to the P.h.D. Thesis Exam

All graduate students in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology come under the jurisdiction of the Departmental Committee on Graduate Students and Studies. The Chairman of the Committee is authorized to approve all examination committees appointed for doctoral candidates.

1. Application for the Ph.D. Degree
Applications are available in the Departmental Office. Candidates for the degree must file degree applications with the OEB Office by August 15 for award in November; by December 3 for award the following March; and by April 1 for award at Commencement. Check the Academic Calendar for updated deadline information. All applications must be approved by the Chairman of the Department. Students should be aware that many committee members are not available for thesis defenses when school is not in session.

2. Thesis Presentation
The student must present the subject matter of the thesis in a seminar before a group open to the general biological community within the University, and to which the members of the Thesis Examination Committee have been invited. This presentation shall take place prior to the Thesis Examination. The Departmental Office should be notified of the Public Presentation one month prior to the date, so that a Thesis Seminar Notice can be sent to the OEB faculty members and fellow students. A copy of the posted notice of the seminar will become part of the student's record.

3. Thesis Summary
Each Ph.D. candidate will prepare a summary of the thesis, ordinarily limited to one page, single-spaced, and submit it to the Departmental Office two weeks prior to the date of the Thesis Examination. Copies of the Thesis Summary will be distributed to all OEB faculty members. This is the ABSTRACT of your thesis.

4. Thesis Examination
The thesis is written under the supervision of the student's research advisor and should conform to the standards outlined in the booklet, "The Form of the Doctoral Thesis," available in the Departmental Office.

The Thesis Examination Committee will consist of the student's advisor who will serve as chairman, and at least two other members suggested by the advisor. At least three members of the committee must be members of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added by the advisor. The overall composition of the committee must be approved by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee. The Thesis Examination Committee will, if possible, be the same as the Thesis Conference Committee.

The OEB Departmental Office and the Chairman of the Graduate Committee must be notified of the time and location of the Thesis Examination two weeks prior to the date desired. At the same time, the candidate will present to his/her Thesis Committee a copies of the thesis in final form (not yet bound; students should ask committee members whether they prefer digital or hard copies). An additional digital thesis copy must be submitted to the Graduate Office two weeks prior to the Thesis Examination (this copy will be made available to OEB faculty). A copy of the Thesis Examination Notice and the Thesis Summary will be sent to all OEB Faculty members. Failure to provide copies of the thesis to the committee and to the OEB office two weeks prior to the exam date will automatically lead to postponement of the thesis defense.

The student should observe the final dates for holding the thesis examination indicated in the Academic Calendar sent to all students at the beginning of each term. It is suggested that the thesis examination be held at least one month prior to the date the thesis is due in the registrar's office, to allow time for revisions; students should not expect committee members to approve a thesis simply because a student has an impending deadline. 

After examination, the committee will decide whether the candidate will pass, fail, or pass on the condition that specified changes be made to the thesis (because students are often required to do additional work before the thesis is passed, students should defend at least a month before degree filing or other deadlines). The committee may delegate to its chairman the responsibility for seeing that such changes are made in a satisfactory manner before the award of the degree is recommended to the Department by the Committee on Graduate Students and Studies. The student's advisor should make such certification in writing to the Chairman of the Graduate Committee.

If at all possible, students should schedule their last Thesis Conference 1-3 months prior to their thesis defense. At this time, they should review the thesis fully, giving committee members the opportunity to identify issues that should be rectified prior to presentation of the thesis. Holding such a Thesis Conference is the best way to ensure that problems are identified prior to the defense, thus minimizing the chance that the committee will require substantial additional work that may greatly delay awarding of the degree.
In rare cases, it may be possible to hold the Thesis Exam with one committee member absent. Arrangements must be made for that committee member to confer with the advisor prior to the thesis being approved.  Approval for such an arrangement must come from the Chairman of the Graduate Committee and only will be granted under unusual circumstances.

5. Filing the Thesis
Students should consult the GSAS thesis submission guidelines at http://www.gsas.harvard.edu/publications/form_of_the_phd_dissertation.php.  Each candidate must be registered in GSAS, paying at a minimum a charge equal to the Facilities Fee, at the time the thesis is filed. These dates may vary and should be checked in the GSAS Handbook available at registration each year. It is the student's responsibility to submit the thesis to the Registrar's Office in accordance with the desired graduation date deadline.  The student should also submit a bound copy of the thesis to the OEB Graduate Program Coordinator.

Master of Arts(MA)

The Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology does not admit students whose sole purpose is to study for the master of arts degree. However, graduate students admitted to any PhD program at Harvard University may apply for the AM degree if they fulfill the following requirements:

  1. Six graded half-courses in the department (or approved by the director of graduate studies), with no grades lower than B- and an overall grade average of B or better.
  2. At least three of the six courses must be below the 200 level.
  3. At least two of the six courses must be at the 200 level.
  4. TIME and 300-level courses will not ordinarily be accepted toward the AM degree.
  5. AM candidates must submit a written report based on original research conducted under the guidance of a faculty member in the department.

Changing Advisors

The relationship between student and advisor is an extremely important one, and hopefully a pleasant and productive one as well. However, sometimes incompatibilities arise, be they professional, personal, or philosophical. If this is the case, students may give careful consideration to changing to someone who is a more appropriate advisor.

Upon admission, students will be assigned a faculty member in the Department to serve as a thesis research advisor. Students are encouraged to consult freely with any staff member on matters pertaining to their programs and may change to another advisor at any time, subject only to the approval of the new advisor and notification to the departmental office.

Students must have an advisor at all times and 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.

From the onset, it is essential that every aspect of changing advisors be done with professionalism. Whatever the reasons for changing advisors, a harmonious relationship with all parties involved will lead to a more productive and pleasant graduate career.

It is very important to keep in mind the three principal parties involved (student, present advisor, and potential new advisor) and their concerns and perspectives in that situation. 

Some concerns of the present advisor are: what is best for the student; reasons for wanting to change advisors; reasons for choice of a new advisor; structure and composition of her/his laboratory; what the new advisor thinks.

Similarly, some concerns of the potential new advisor are: what is best for the student; reasons for leaving the present advisor; reasons for choice of her/him as the new advisor; structure and composition of her/his laboratory; what the old advisor thinks.

Although it is impossible to offer comprehensive suggestions that account for every specific case, here are some recommended steps in facilitating the process of changing advisors: (1) Think about it carefully. Why is the present situation unsatisfactory? What can be done to make the situation better? (2) Talk to people and get advice. Find out how others view the situation. If not the present advisor, who do others think would be appropriate? What do other people think of those whom might be considered as an advisor? (3) Think about it some more. Again, why change advisors? Is changing advisors the best way to go? (4) Talk to the current advisor. Explain why the present situation is less than satisfactory, and openly discuss options. (5) Talk to the prospective new advisor. Discuss with her/him honestly about the situation. Mention the reasons for wanting to change advisors, and why the new advisor was chosen. Be sure the new advisor is truly ready to take you on.

How to Change Advisors: A student may request to change research advisor(s), by filling out a change of advisor form available in the Departmental Office. The student is encouraged to consult freely with any staff member on matters pertaining to the research program and may change advisors at any time subject to the approval of the new advisor and the Chairman of the Graduate Committee on Students and Studies.

Every student must have an advisor who is a faculty member in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at all times. Failure to make arrangements for an advisor may result in dismissal from the department.

The Graduate Committee

The members of the Graduate Committee: Jonathan Losos (Chair, 2010-), Andrew Biewener, Stacey Combes, Charles Davis, Michael Desai, Cassandra Extavour, and Elena Kramer.

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