The First Two Years

Students may work toward one or two of three graduate degrees (Master of Science, Master of Engineering, Doctor of Philosophy) in one of four subjects—applied mathematics, applied physics, computer science, and engineering sciences. Within engineering sciences, students may pursue several areas including bioengineering, electrical engineering, environmental engineering, and mechanical engineering and materials science. Students may also pursue a Master of Science or a Master of Engineering in Computational Science and Engineering.

Master of Science (SM)

The SM degree is awarded for the successful completion at Harvard of eight semester-length courses comprising an integrated program of both depth and breadth. Students are expected to take as many of the eight courses as possible from the 200-level courses offered by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). At least four of the eight must be SEAS courses, and a maximum of three 100-level courses may be substituted for 200-level offerings. One 299r course may be included if a core exists of at least five other 200-level courses. The program is developed in consultation with a field advisor and must be approved by the Committee on Higher Degrees (CHD). Early planning of courses is essential, and the SM degree program must be submitted by study card day in the first term in the program. It is expected that students will complete the SM in two terms, or one academic year.

Only letter-graded courses may be included in the program, all courses must be passed with a grade of C-or better, and a B or better average grade must be maintained. A temporary incomplete grade is equivalent to a C. Fall term incomplete grades must be resolved before the beginning of the succeeding fall term and spring term Incomplete grades must be resolved before the beginning of the succeeding spring term, unless an earlier deadline is specified by the instructor. A permanent Incomplete is equivalent to a grade of E.

No thesis, foreign language, or general examination is required although a thesis option is possible.

Students admitted to the PhD program can apply for and receive the SM on completion of the requirements for the master’s degree.

Advanced standing undergraduates in Harvard College may apply for admission to the AB-SM program (see Chapter IV) for the fourth year and are subject to the SM requirements described above.

Master of Engineering (ME)

Graduate students in the SEAS who wish to pursue more advanced formal training without undertaking the research required for the completion of a doctoral dissertation may earn the ME degree by successfully completing one year of course work and one year of research, including a final oral presentation of the thesis. A thesis is required in the ME program.

The requirements for the ME degree include eight half courses plus eight additional research-oriented courses at the 300-level that result in the completion of the required ME thesis. The letter-graded courses must be completed with a 3.00 or better average grade; no course completed with a grade less than B- may be included. Failure to maintain a cumulative 3.00 or better average grade or receipt of any unsatisfactory grade may require that the student withdraw, thus terminating degree candidacy. Not more than eight 300-level reading and research courses may be included in a SEAS ME program.

These requirements imply that an ME student will be expected to take eight non-300 level courses (including up to one 299r) and eight 300 level research courses. ME students may take additional non-300 level courses if doing so is helpful for the student’s thesis; the ME advisor must support the enrollment in these additional courses and doing so may not extend the time to degree beyond two years.

No thesis, foreign language, or general examination is required although a thesis option is possible.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The PhD requires a minimum academic residency of two years beyond the bachelor’s degree. Programs are individually developed in consultation with a field advisor and must be approved by the Committee on Higher Degrees (CHD), which also reviews any requests for exceptions to the requirements. A prospective PhD degree program must be filed for review by the CHD before the beginning of spring recess during the student’s second term. A final PhD degree program must be submitted before Thanksgiving recess in the student’s third term.


Normally, students spend one-and-one-half to two years on coursework. The goal of this curriculum is to foster the education of PhD students so that they develop both the in-depth knowledge of their fields and the broader appreciation and skills that they will need after graduation. Students should work in close consultation with their advisor to develop an appropriate program of study which will contain a minimum of ten courses. Courses provide the background knowledge that is often needed to successfully complete research, and allow one to learn more broadly about a field or related fields in a structured fashion. Courses are not meant as and should not be seen as an impediment to research, but as a means of enhancing one’s research ability and as part of the process of becoming a mature, well-rounded member of one’s field. The ten-course requirement is considered a minimum and not a goal; students are encouraged to take additional courses whenever appropriate. Of the ten required courses for the PhD degree:

At least eight 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.

Up to two courses can normally be “298r” or “299r” courses, “Innovation” style courses that broaden a student’s perspective, or relevant courses at a suitable level in other departments (e.g. economics) or schools (HKS, Business School, Medical School).

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 work done elsewhere, but only if those courses are approved by the Committee on Higher Degrees as part of the degree program and justification for inclusion has been provided. Ordinarily, five such courses is the maximum number approved, and only four will count towards the eight disciplinary courses. In most cases fewer than five will be accepted.

The first year is ordinarily spent principally on coursework, although some students may begin research. The second year is usually divided between coursework and research, with coursework completed during the third year if necessary.


A temporary Incomplete grade is equivalent to a C. Fall term Incomplete grades must be resolved before the beginning of the succeeding fall term and spring term incomplete grades must be resolved before the beginning of the succeeding spring term, unless an earlier deadline is specified by the instructor. A permanent Incomplete is equivalent to a grade of E.

Language Requirement

There is no foreign language requirement.


One term of teaching is an SEAS requirement for the PhD degree. Students must serve as a teaching fellow for a SEAS course or for a course outside of SEAS taught by a member of the SEAS faculty.Students are welcome to teach beyond the one term requirement if they wish and their advisor is supportive of their doing so.


When a student enters the PhD program, she or he is assigned a field advisor, based on the research interests she or he expressed in the application. The field advisor assists the student with developing, within the CHD guidelines, a program of courses that will provide the preparation needed for dissertation research.

During the first year in the program, the student focuses on identifying a specific research area and a potential research advisor, often the field advisor originally assigned. However, if the student finds that another faculty member’s research more closely matches his or her interests, the student can ask that faculty member to become his or her advisor. If the original field advisor will not be the potential research advisor, she or he provides assistance, if needed, in identifying other possible research areas and supervisors. In either case, the student should discuss this question with and have agreement from a potential research supervisor during the Spring term of the first year. During the second year, the student finalizes the program of courses with approval of the potential research advisor and the CHD, and a qualifying examination committee is developed, chaired by the potential research advisor and including nominations by the research advisor, the student and the CHD. When the qualifying examination is passed, the research advisor nominates and chairs 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 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.

The Oral Qualifying Examination

Preparation in the major field is evaluated in a two-hour oral examination by a qualifying committee. The examination has the dual purpose of verifying the adequacy of the student’s preparation for undertaking research in a chosen field and of 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 involve principally the presentation and discussion of a potential dissertation topic. It may also include general questions in the chosen research field and related areas. In some parts of SEAS, the examination may be dominated by the latter procedures at the choice of the examining committee.

The qualifying committee is selected when the final PhD program is filed, usually consists of four Harvard faculty members, and must include at least two SEAS faculty members.

The qualifying examination should be taken in the fourth term and not later than the middle of the fifth term; any extension of that deadline must be approved by the Committee on Higher Degrees.

Three outcomes of the qualifying examination are possible. The committee may pass or fail the student or judge the performance to be inconclusive. If 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 reregister, thus terminating degree candidacy.

Research and Dissertation

Upon successful completion of the qualifying examination, a committee usually consisting of three or four Harvard faculty members, is selected and chaired by the research supervisor and constituted to oversee the dissertation research. The committee must include at least two SEAS faculty members, one of whom must be a senior faculty member.

In the student’s sixth term, a progress report, which includes remarks by the student and comments by the committee members, must be submitted by the end of the reading period. Beginning with the eighth term, progress reports are due by the end of the reading period each term, and the committee is strongly urged to meet as a group with the student at least once each year to complete the progress report.

Original research culminating in the dissertation is usually completed in the fourth or fifth year. The dissertation must, in the judgment of the research committee, meet the standards of significant and original research. No prospectus is required by the division. 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 fourth or fifth year and rarely later than the end of the student’s 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.

The final dissertation, including all required changes, must be submitted to the FAS Registar’s Office through ProQuest by the appropriate deadline. The FAS Registrar’s Office publishes all deadlines before the beginning of the academic year and it is the student’s responsibility to know when their dissertation is due. After a positive recommendation to grant the PhD is voted in SEAS, the dissertation acceptance certificate (DAC) is signed by the Research Committee, scanned by the Student Affairs Office, and sent to the student as a PDF. The official signed hard copy of the DAC is delivered to the FAS Registrar’s Office by the SEAS Student Affairs Office.

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