Understanding our planet will be a fundamental challenge for the scientific community over the next century. Almost every practical aspect of society—population, environment, economics, politics—is and will be increasingly impacted by our relationship with the Earth. Facing these challenges requires approaches that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) uses an integrative scientific approach that encompasses and includes many aspects of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology.

In addition to the collaborative exchange with other Harvard departments such as astronomy, chemistry and chemical biology, organismic and evolutionary biology, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, EPS has reciprocal arrangements with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for graduate students to take and receive credit for courses.

The laboratories and lecture rooms of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences are housed in the University Museum and in the David and Arnold Hoffman Laboratory of Experimental Geology. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is housed in Pierce Hall, across Oxford Street from the Hoffman Laboratory.The department operates and maintains a seismological station at the Harvard-Adam Dziewonski Observatory in Harvard, Massachusetts, about 25 miles west of Cambridge.

Laboratory facilities are available for sample preparation, mineral separation, organic geochemistry and molecular biology, microbial and isotope geobiology, radiogenic and stable isotope geochemistry, trace element geochemistry, geophysics, X-ray diffraction analysis, mineral analysis with an automated electron microprobe, scanning and transmission electron microscopy, and spectroscopy. The department is home to a 3D stereo visualization facility. State-of-the-art high performance parallel computing facilities are used by several groups in the department. The specimen collections in mineralogy, petrology, and paleontology are among the best in the world. In addition, opportunities exist for students to participate in field-based research.

Degrees Offered

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences admits students for the PhD only; EPS does not admit students for the Master of Arts (AM) degree. The program may award the AM degree incidentally to PhD candidates.

Master of Arts (AM)

Graduate students enrolled in a PhD program may apply for the AM degree upon the satisfactory completion of the required eight half-courses as outlined in the EPS Handbook.

Bachelor of Arts-Master of Arts (AB-AM)

Harvard Advanced Standing students have an opportunity in their fourth year to pursue the AM in EPS. Policies for this degree are administered by the EPS Graduate Studies Committee (GSC). The AB-AM degree is intended for strong science or engineering students with an interest in the earth sciences. An undergraduate who wishes to apply for this degree must apply online for admission to the graduate program in EPS in their third year. Interested students should contact the department as early as freshman year to learn about the degree and program requirements.

Admission Requirements

Requirements for admission are highly flexible and each application is judged on its own merits. Preparation in the related sciences of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics is as important as a solid background in geology. Students with backgrounds in biology, chemistry, Earth sciences, engineering, physics, and related fields are strongly encouraged to apply. The department requires prospective applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Entering graduate students are expected to arrive with an appropriate math preparation depending on their field of study. Students in geophysics, climate, ocean and atmospheric dynamics and other math-intensive research areas are expected to have successfully completed applied math courses to the level of ordinary and partial differential equations. Students in less mathematically-oriented research areas are expected to have successfully completed basic college-level calculus and linear algebra at the level of Applied Math 21a, 21b or Math 21a, 21b . If not, these should be taken in addition to the department's math requirement, and incoming students should be aware that this represents a significant additional commitment. Students are expected, in the course of graduate work, to complete the second and third year of college mathematics (intermediate and advanced calculus and differential equations). Students with a strong math and physics background doing theoretical work are expected to take higher-level graduate mathematics courses.

We ask applicants to list one to three EPS faculty whose research fields seem closest to his or her interests. For a list of faculty, see Study Opportunities on the EPS Graduate Study website.

Financial Aid

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences guarantees full financial support for four years to all PhD candidates. Funding for the fifth year and beyond is considered on a case-by-case basis. Financial support for graduate students comes from a combination of research assistantships, teaching fellowships, and department funds.

Each graduate student is required to teach two sections for two different courses or for the same course in two different years. This requirement is generally completed during the second and third year of graduate work. Funding from this required teaching is a part of the overall support package.

In addition, special summer scholarship funding is often available for students to do research-related fieldwork, subject to the approval of the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC).

Prospective students are encouraged to apply for outside funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA. International students often apply for outside funding such as the Fulbright and Knox fellowships before coming to the United States. Information on these agencies is available in more detail in a separate booklet issued by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Financing Graduate Study.

Degree Requirements


Minimum of two years; see The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook. Students should normally plan to complete all requirements for the PhD degree within four years of their enrollment at Harvard.

Appointment of Advisors and Plan of Study

In September, all new students are assigned a preliminary advisor who along with the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) will help first-year students decide which courses to take during the fall term. By the end of the spring term, first-year students submit a Plan of Study listing the courses they plan to take to meet academic requirements, naming a PhD advisor and advisory committee (usually three faculty from the department), and proposing summer research plans. The student’s principal advisor and the co-directors of the GSC will review and approve the Plan of Study. Members of the advisory committee are selected by the student in consultation with their advisor. One or more external faculty members may be on the committee. As students' research interests evolve, the composition of their advisory committee can be adjusted.

Course Requirements

All students are required to take at least eight graduate-level courses in fulfillment of the PhD degree. Four of these courses must be letter-graded at the 200 level in earth and planetary sciences or related courses at a suitable level in other disciplines such as applied mathematics, applied physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering sciences, mathematics, or physics. Two letter-graded math courses are required; please see the EPS Handbook for details.

To ensure that graduate students gain exposure to the many areas of earth sciences, they must fulfill a breadth requirement. Students are required to take at least two letter-graded EPS courses outside of their main area of research interest. These courses must be approved by the student's advisor. By petition to the GSC, courses with an earth or planetary science component in other departments at Harvard may count towards the breadth requirement, provided the course is a lecture course with an exam or a term paper designed for graduate students.

The requirements outlined above are a minimum standard and students will usually take additional courses in both their selected field and others. Students normally satisfy the eight-specified course requirements in the first two years of graduate study in preparation for their qualifying oral examination; however, students need not fulfill these requirements before beginning research and should not put off research on this account.

All degree candidates must maintain an average equivalent to B or better to continue in the program.

Field Trip

All graduate students are required to participate in at least one department-sponsored field research trip during their time at EPS. Annual trips are organized by EPS graduate students and are approved by the GSC. Students learn about the relevant earth science in a particular area and gain experience in planning field trips—from developing an itinerary to preparing a budget to executing and reporting on the trip. Alternatively, students may be a leader on one of the undergraduate field trips, as appropriate, or may carry out other department-sponsored fieldwork. Students who are unable to take part in a trip should complete a waiver form by the end of their fifth year.

Qualifying Oral Examination

All candidates for the PhD degree are expected to take the qualifying oral examination by the end of their fourth semester in the program. The purpose of the oral examination is to determine a student's depth and breadth of scholarship in a chosen area of specialization (not necessarily their prospective dissertation research), as well as the student's originality, capacity for synthesis and critical examination, intensity of intellectual curiosity, and clarity of communication.

Progress Reports

In the third and subsequent years of study, students are required to file an annual Progress Report consisting of a one-page research summary and a form signed by all committee members. Students should meet with each member of their advisory committee and any issues should be noted on the form. The Progress Report is intended to keep the student, advisors, and the GSC aware of the student's progress toward the degree.

Third year students should include the subject and general objectives of their proposed dissertation research. Details may be modified as the dissertation progresses, but any major change in the subject and scope of the dissertation must be approved by the advisory committee. 

Final Examination/Dissertation Defense

The object of the dissertation is to show that candidates have technical mastery of the field in which they present themselves and that they are capable of independent research. The subject should be distinct and limited, and the writer should be able to formulate conclusions modifying or enlarging some aspects of present knowledge. Candidates must submit the dissertation not more than five years after having passed the Qualifying Oral Examination.

The final exam is usually held within a month after the dissertation has been submitted. There are two components to the final exam: the first is a private defense before a small faculty committee; the second is a public presentation to the department as a whole.

Additional Information

To learn more about courses, programs of study, and faculty research interests, please visit our website or write directly to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 20 Oxford Street, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. Information about admission and financial aid may be obtained by writing to the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center, 3rd floor, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138. We require online submission of the application. See the GSAS Admissions website.

Recent EPS PhD Students and Dissertations

  • Ethan Butler, “American Maize: Climate Change, Adaptation, and Spatio-Temporal Variation in Temperature Sensitivity”

    Patrick Kim, “Particulate matter and ozone: Remote sensing and source attribution”

    Tom Laakso, “A Theory of Atmospheric Oxygen”

    Karen McKinnon, “Understanding and predicting temperature variability in the observational record”

    Scot Miller, “Emissions of nitrous oxide and methane in North America”

    Sierra Petersen, “Rapid Climate Change in the Cenozoic: Insights from geochemical proxies”

    Maria Peto, “Application of noble gas isotopic systems to identify mantle heterogeneities”

    Justin Strauss, “The Neoproterozoic and Early Paleozoic Tectonic and Environmental Evolution of Alaska and Northwest Canada”

    Steve Turner, “Constraining subduction zone processes through local, regional, and global chemical systematics”

Earth and Planetary Sciences Faculty