Degree Programs

Chemical Physics

The degree of doctor of philosophy in chemical physics was established to meet the needs of students wishing to prepare themselves for the study of chemical problems by the methods and theories of modern physics. The Committee on the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Chemical Physics is composed of members of the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Physics, and Astronomy and of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, with special interests in the field commonly known as chemical physics. The program of study includes courses in these subjects, and research on an appropriate problem under the direction of a member of one of these departments.

In general, candidates have access to the facilities and are eligible for the fellowships and scholarships of these departments. For further information, consult Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics.


Applications for admission to study for the PhD degree in chemical physics are accepted from students who have received the bachelor’s degree or have had equivalent preparation. These applications should be initiated during the fall of the year preceding the September when admission is desired. Normally, students are admitted only for September.

Applicants must take the GRE general and chemistry (or physics) examinations. These must be taken no later than November of the year prior to admission and preferably earlier so that score reports arrive by the December application deadline. TOEFL is required of all foreign applicants other than those whose native language is English.

We encourage prospective students to submit their applications online whenever possible at To apply to the Chemical Physics program, please select Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the drop down box in the Preliminary Questions section of the online application. You will be able to select Chemical Physics as a subject within Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Please note: Chemical Physics is a separate and distinct program from Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Applicants selecting Chemical Physics and admitted to the Chemical Physics program will receive a PhD in Chemical Physics. We also ask the student’s recommenders to submit their letters online whenever possible.

Financial Support

Students should refer to the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Program of Study description for information about financial support.

Master of Arts (AM)

No master’s degree is offered in chemical physics. However, a prospective candidate for the PhD in this subject may apply to the departments of either Chemistry and Chemical Biology or Physics for the AM degree in the corresponding subject. The requirements for the AM degree in either Chemistry or Physics are described in the GSAS Handbook under the Chemistry and Chemical Biology or Physics sections.

Requirements for the PhD

Prerequisites for Admission

A sufficient preparation in intermediate physical chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The GRE General Examination is required, as is the subject exam, in either chemistry or physics.

Qualifying Requirements

Students in the Program for the PhD in Chemical Physics are required to pass five half-courses with average grades of B or higher. Grades of B- will count as a pass if balanced by a B+ or better on a one-for-one basis.

There are two tracks:

  1. Either one course from A), one course from B), and three courses from C)
  2. or two courses from A), one course from B), and two courses from C).

A) Chemistry 242; or Physics 251a, 251b.

B) Chemistry 190 or 240; or Physics 262 or Applied Physics 284.

C) Applied Mathematics 201, 202; Chemistry 158; Applied Physics 195, 282, 292, 295a, 295b, 296r, 298r; Physics 151, 153, 181 (or Eng. Sci. 181), 218, 232a, 232b, 253a, 253b, 268r.

Equivalent courses may be substituted with the approval of the Curriculum Advising Committee.

All entering graduate students (G1s) are required to take "Chemistry 301hf. Scientific Teaching and Communication: Practicum" in their first year. This course will teach graduate students how to communicate scientific concepts in the classroom and help prepare them for their teaching responsibilities that begin in the spring term of the first year.

During Orientation, each incoming student will formulate a Plan of Study in consultation with a member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC). The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses, and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original Plan of Study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

Students normally satisfy the letter-graded course requirements in the first two years of graduate studies.

Admission to a research group is strongly encouraged at the start of or during the student’s second term. All students should enter a research group by June 30th of their first year.


Entering graduate students are required to participate in three 4-week rotations in different laboratories, OR they may conduct one 8-week and one 4-week rotation in two different laboratories. The goal of the rotations is to broaden a student’s scientific perspective by exposure to the science and environment of different laboratories. Students may rotate with faculty outside the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department. Anyone wishing to do a rotation in an outside department is encouraged to contact the outside faculty member directly to discuss the possibility of a rotation.


Each incoming student meets with an assigned member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC) in the week prior to the start of classes, to formulate a Plan of Study.. The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses, and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original Plan of Study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

During rotations, once in a lab, each rotation student will be assigned a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor. Mentors are a valuable resource for rotation students, providing guidance and advice regarding lab practices and policies.

All students are strongly encouraged to enter a research group by the end of the second term of their first year, unless a deferral is granted on a term-by-term basis by the director of graduate studies. Once a student joins a research group, the faculty member of that group becomes the student’s advisor. If a student subsequently finds that another area of research more closely matches his or her interests, the student should consult with the director of graduate studies.

At the end of their first year, students are expected to form, in consultation with the director of graduate studies, their Graduate Advising Committee (GAC). The GAC consists of the student’s advisor and two other faculty members, one of whom must be a CCB faculty member.Students report their progress to the GAC at least once per year, beginning in their G2 year. The GAC may require more frequent meetings depending on the student's progress, especially as the dissertation defense nears. Students are expected to present and defend an independent proposal anytime between the first semester of their 2nd year and the end of their 4th year in the presence of their GAC. Any one of the G2, G3, or G4 GAC committee meetings can serve as the independent research proposal meeting. The objective of these meetings is to promote the timely completion of degree requirements, to foster (non-advisor) faculty-student interactions, and to provide career counseling.

Students are encouraged to consult with the director of graduate studies on any issues that affect graduate student life.

Oral Examinations

Students in Chemical Physics are expected to present and defend a research proposal anytime between the first semester of their 2nd year up to the end of their 4th year (June 30th). Any one of the G2, G3, or G4 GAC committee meetings can serve as the independent research proposal meeting. Students are required to choose topics that are distinct from their Ph.D. research, and the final topic should be arrived at in consultation with their advisor. The student with his/her advisor will decide when to present the independent proposal.

Completing an independent research proposal will expand a student's base scientific knowledge and provide a formal exercise in identifying research projects in interesting and promising areas of research. The objectives of the independent research proposal program are:

  1. To provide students the opportunity to:
    1. think deeply and creatively about a significant research problem and propose how that problem can be addressed experimentally.
    2. develop writing skills by preparing a clear and concise scientific document.
    3. develop oral presentation skills and engage in scientific discourse.
  2. To provide students with a forum to receive constructive, critical feedback from faculty members.

The oral exam is expected to be 30 to 60 minutes in duration. During the presentation, students should be prepared to answer questions concerning the proposal topic as well as allied areas. Questions of a more general nature or of topical interest (e.g. recent CCB seminars) may also be asked. At the end of the independent research proposal presentation, there will be a short discussion on research progress to date.


A thorough command of oral and written English is required. Incoming PhD students who are non-native speakers of English and who have not received their undergraduate degree from an English speaking institution will have their English proficiency determined by the Institute of English Language (IEL). Students who are not deemed proficient will be required to take courses at the IEL to develop their English language skills as part of their preparation for teaching and professional development. Students will not be allowed to teach until they are deemed proficient.


Students are expected to teach in the spring term of their first year and one term of their second year based on teaching needs. With his or her advisor’s approval, a student may teach in subsequent years.

Satisfactory Progress

Continuation in the degree program is contingent on the following: (1) satisfactory completion of required coursework, (2) successful presentation and defense of a research proposal in accordance with policy set by the Graduate Advising Committee (GAC), (3) admission to a research group during the second term in residence, unless extension of time has been approved by the director of graduate studies, and (4) satisfactory progress in 300-level research courses.


The preparation of a satisfactory dissertation normally requires at least four years of full-time research. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described online in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

All students are expected to provide a public presentation of their PhD research. The dissertation defense will be comprised of two parts: 1) a public presentation of the student’s PhD research to which members of the CCB community will be invited, followed by 2) the private PhD dissertation defense before the dissertation defense committee (generally the GAC). One of the readers must be a faculty member of the department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (generally the advisor). Two members of the committee must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Faculty members from other schools at Harvard who hold appointments on GSAS degree committees as well as FAS emeriti and research professors may serve as members of the dissertation committee. Faculty of institutions outside of Harvard may serve as a member of the dissertation committee providing the requirement of two readers from FAS (one being a CCB faculty member, generally the advisor) is met.

PhD in Chemical Physics

Selected PhD Dissertation Titles

  • Nathalie de Leon Snapp, "Quantum Plasmonic Circuit Elements" (Park Group)
  • Brian Landry, "Semiclassical Methods for Many-Body Systems" (Heller Group)
  • Patrick Rebentrost, "Exciton Transfer in Photosynthesis and Engineered Systems: Role of Electronic Coherence and the Environment" (Aspuru-Guzik Group)
  • Alexander Shalek, "Nano- and Micro-structured Interfaces for Interrogating Living Cells" (Park Group)
  • Jie Xiang, "Semiconductor Nanowires and Nanowire Heterostructures: Fundamental Transport Phenomena and Application in Nanoelectronics" (Lieber Group)
  • Jiabin Xu, "Computer Simulations of Protein Folding and Evolution" (Shakhnovich Group)