Course Requirements

Normally, Human Evolutionary Biology PhD students will take at least eight half-courses in human evolutionary biology and related areas during their first two years in residence. These will include one Proseminar in evolutionary theory and a minimum of three courses out of five identified primary areas: human paleontology, genetics, human anatomy and physiology, human behavioral ecology, and primate behavioral ecology. Each student’s program of study must receive the approval of his or her 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 is to be completed by the time of the qualifying examinations. Depending upon 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.


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 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.

Master of Arts (AM)

Human Evolutionary Biology PhD students may apply for a non-terminal Master's degree (AM) in their second or third year, after they have passed eight half-courses including the Proseminar and three 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.

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 are assigned two faculty advisors based upon compatibility of research interests.

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

In the week before fall term begins, first-year students will meet with their assigned faculty advisors in Human Evolutionary Biology to plan a program of study that takes into account their previous training and current academic interests.

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

Qualifying Examination

Successful completion of the Proseminar and the three area 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 a week before the oral examination is to occur. Students are expected to fulfill this 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 the qualifying examinations. Failure to pass the qualifying examinations can be grounds for dismissal from the graduate program. 

The Dissertation

The Dissertation Prospectus

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

The candidate will submit to this committee a dissertation (or thesis) prospectus 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 twelfth term after entry into the graduate program. The dissertation 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 that faculty. A complete dissertation must be received by all members of the dissertation committee at least two 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 committee and other interested faculty. Only after successful completion of this examination and the incorporation of any revisions required by the dissertation committee may a candidate’s dissertation be approved for submission to the 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 readmission to the graduate program through the Graduate School.

PhD dissertation manuscripts must conform to the requirements described online in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

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