Physics at Harvard
Graduate students in the Department of Physics study matter and energy on a wide variety of scales and pave the way for innovations in science and technology that reshape the world around us.
The department's research areas include atomic and molecular physics, quantum science, computational physics, quantum optics, condensed-matter physics, biophysics, astrophysics, mathematical physics, particle physics, quantum field theory, string theory, relativity, and cosmology. The department also encourages students to pursue interdisciplinary work with other departments like applied physics, astronomy, mathematics, biology, and chemistry.
The Department of Physics has 40 full-time faculty members and a graduate enrollment of about 200 students. The department is committed to fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment and attracting the widest possible range of talents. At present, approximately a quarter of current graduate students are women and 40 percent are international students.
The primary on-campus buildings of the Department of Physics are Jefferson and Lyman Laboratories, and many of the department’s members also carry out research in Cruft, Pierce, McKay, and the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering (LISE). Jefferson Laboratory is the oldest physics laboratory in the United States, and, after extensive renovations, now includes areas designed specifically for study and collaboration among the department's graduate students.
Cambridge and Boston offer extraordinary opportunities for keeping current with the latest developments in physics. A weekly calendar lists the many colloquia and seminars in physics at Harvard and neighboring universities. The Morris Loeb and Lee Historical Lectureships bring eminent physicists to Harvard each year for more extensive presentations.
Facilities and Resources
The physics department and its collaborators are leaders in a broad spectrum of physics research, utilizing facilities and technologies that are continually being modified and improved. Students have opportunities to work in first-class facilities and research centers at Harvard that emphasize scientific collaboration:
- The Center for Ultracold Atoms (CUA)
The CUA brings together a community of scientists from MIT and Harvard to pursue research in the new fields opened up by the creation of ultracold atoms and quantum gases. The CUA's research is currently organized around the themes of strongly correlated states of ultracold atoms and quantum state control of atoms and photons, and is carried out in dedicated facilities at MIT and Harvard University by a community of approximately 100 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, undergraduate students and visitors who work under the supervision of the Center's senior investigators in collaborative projects.
- Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)
The CfA combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to pursue studies of the basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. At the CfA, 300 Smithsonian and Harvard scientists cooperate in broad programs of astrophysical research touching on almost all major topics in astronomy.
- Center for Nanoscale Systems (CNS)
The scientific focus of the CNS is on how nanoscale components can be integrated into large and complex interacting systems. In addition to studying very small structures and how their behavior differs from macroscopic objects, researchers at the CNS also investigate how physical systems emerge, how they can be built, and how they behave.
- Engineering and Physical Biology (EPB)
EPB is a collaboration of 25 Harvard science faculty members who study living systems through the lens of physics and engineering. Research in EPB spans a variety of subjects at the intersection of biology and physics, including dynamics, collective behaviors, and signaling, with a primary focus on processes at the molecular and cellular levels.
- Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering (IQSE)
The IQSE is a Harvard Science and Technology Initiative whose mission is to foster cross-disciplinary research and education in new areas at the intersection of nanoscience, atomic physics, device engineering and computer science, and seeks to apply principles of quantum mechanics to advanced technologies.
- Institute for Theoretical Atomic and Molecular Physics (ITAMP)
ITAMP trains, mentors, and sponsors postdoctoral and visiting fellows in theoretical atomic, molecular, and optical science. ITAMP’s research topics include precision measurements and tests of fundamental laws, ultracold physics, the development and application of ultra-intense, short wavelength light sources, ultra-fast quantum control of atoms, molecules and electrons, nanoscience, and quantum information science.
- Laboratory for Particle Physics and Cosmology (LPPC)
The Laboratory for Particle Physics and Cosmology conducts cutting-edge research in experimental particle physics and observational cosmology, and provides educational resources for graduate and undergraduate students.
- Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC)
The Harvard MRSEC identifies new interdisciplinary areas of materials research and trains students in materials science and engineering.
- Nanoscale Science Engineering Center (NSEC)
Through a close integration of research, education, and public outreach, the NSEC combines top-down and bottom-up approaches to constructing novel electronic and magnetic devices with nanoscale sizes and understanding their behavior, including quantum phenomena.
- Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature
The Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature encompasses Harvard’s high-energy theory group, and carries out research in particle phenomenology, collider physics, model-building, relativity and cosmology, quantum gravity, holography, and formal aspects of string theory.
Graduate students in the Department of Physics are also engaged in research at centers outside of Cambridge, including the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Higher Degrees in Physics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The graduate program in physics accepts applications only for the PhD degree. Although many graduate students earn a continuing AM (Master’s) degree along the way to completing their PhDs, the department does not accept applications specifically for terminal AM degrees.
Timeline. Incoming graduate students are not technically candidates for the PhD until they have completed a set of candidacy requirements. Before obtaining the PhD, students must therefore satisfy two sets of requirements—those for official doctoral candidacy, and those for the PhD degree itself.
Although no two PhD students follow precisely the same path, students should keep in mind the following general timeline, with details to be explained in later sections:
- During both semesters of the first year, students’ tuition, fees, and stipends are covered by either Harvard’s Purcell fellowship or outside sources of funding, and students should devote their attention to coursework and getting acquainted with research groups. Each student should consult regularly with his or her assigned academic advisor in planning a program of study and research.
- In the summer after the first year, students arrange for their own funding. For those without external fellowships, options include research assistantships (RAs) with research groups, teaching fellowships (TFs) with summer courses, or attending summer schools and conferences.
- Starting in the second year, a student without outside funding should plan on securing either a research assistantship (RA) or a teaching fellowship (TF) each semester. Students typically use their second year to complete their required coursework and transition into a research group.
- During the second year, the student should make sure to complete most of their remaining course requirements. They should also organize a three-member faculty committee—ideally chaired by his or her prospective thesis advisor—and take the qualifying oral examination. After completion of the examination and acceptance by a thesis advisor, the student has fulfilled the requirements for official candidacy for the PhD degree.
- Once the student has completed the requirements for candidacy—ideally by the end of the second year but certainly before the end of the third year—the student should proceed with a research program that eventually culminates in a thesis. Toward the end of each year following the qualifying exam or after the third year (whichever comes first), the student submits a progress report to his or her faculty committee for review.
- After joining a research group, students typically receive their summer funding by working in a research assistantship (RA) with that group.
- Each student is required to serve as a teaching fellow (TF) at least one fall or spring semester during the course of the PhD program. Note that to fulfill this requirement, the TF position should consist of at least 15 hours per week (3/8-time) and involve a teaching component and not merely grading.
- After writing a thesis under the guidance of a thesis advisor, typically by the end of the fifth or sixth year, the student presents the thesis to a dissertation committee of three faculty members in a final dissertation defense. Once the completed thesis is submitted, the student has fulfilled the requirements for the doctoral degree.
Admission. Candidates for the graduate physics program can submit their applications online. The department's admissions committee reviews each candidate's entire application, including statement of purpose, transcript, experience, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation—the statement of purpose and letters of recommendation being especially important, as they directly attest to the student’s research experience and capabilities.
The only specific requirements for admission for the graduate program in physics are those stipulated by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. However, prospective students should be well-versed in intermediate physics and mathematics. Ideally, applicants should have devoted approximately half their undergraduate work to physics and mathematics and have completed a one-year introduction to quantum mechanics. The results of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) general tests and physics subject test are normally required of all applicants, and are waived only in exceptional circumstances.
A prospective student who has a marked interest in a particular branch of physics should describe it in the statement of purpose. Applicants should also indicate whether they are inclined toward experimental or theoretical research; note that this stated preference will not be construed as a binding commitment to any particular course of study or research.
Each applicant should additionally submit a brief description of the six most advanced courses (four in physics and two in mathematics) completed or to be completed by graduation. If a standard textbook is used, it suffices to write, for example, "Quantum Mechanics, Merzbacher, chapters 1-15."
Financial Support. The Department of Physics guarantees full financial support on a twelve-month basis for all its graduate students as long as they remain in good standing and complete assigned duties in a satisfactory manner. Support packages consist of Harvard scholarships and some combination of teaching fellowships, outside fellowships, and research assistantships. Some students choose to serve as resident tutors in one of the undergraduate dorms or Houses, receiving room and board but no additional cash stipend.
The department’s financial support package is set so that all students, whatever the stage of their graduate studies, receive at least a minimum gross (taxable) stipend for living expenses. This stipend is adjusted each year to help meet increases in the cost of living, within the limitations of available funds. Additional support includes
- tuition and fees,
- cost of medical insurance,
- cost of access to Harvard’s University Health Services,
- support for professional travel ($1,000 annually, up to a maximum of $2,000) for the first two years of graduate study, as well as for the third through fifth years after completing the qualifying exam.
For graduate students who do not have outside funding, the primary source of this basic support during the first two semesters of graduate study is the Purcell Fellowship, which covers the full stipend as well as tuition and fees and affords students with the opportunity to explore the activities of all the department’s research groups.
In addition, students may receive other fellowship offers that can be used at Harvard. A fellowship can release departmental or research funds to support other students. After receiving a fellowship, the student should inform the graduate program administrator immediately so that it can be integrated with the rest of the student’s financial package. If a first-year fellowship provides fewer resources than what the department offers, the department will provide a supplement.
Research assistantships (RAs) and teaching fellowships (TFs) are important sources of support for graduate students after their first year. Because of the importance of teaching skills for a successful physics career, a one-term TF is required of all graduate students, generally within the first five years of study. This teaching experience provides an opportunity for students to develop the communication skills that are vital for careers in academics and industry.
Advising. The department assigns each incoming graduate student a faculty academic advisor to help the student make decisions about coursework and research opportunities. Each student is free to choose a new advisor at any subsequent time, but should inform the graduate program administrator of such a change after obtaining the new advisor’s consent. In particular, by the end of the second year, the student should choose an advisor who will supervise the student’s thesis.
In planning a program, students should study the catalogue of Courses of Instruction offered by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as the description in the Programs of Study. After drawing up a tentative program, each student should discuss it with his or her faculty advisor. Students are also welcome to discuss their plans at any time with the Director or Associate Director of Graduate Studies.
Requirements for Candidacy
Course Record. Students who propose to present theses in experimental fields should demonstrate promise in experimental work and a satisfactory understanding of theoretical physics. Applicants for candidacy in theoretical physics should demonstrate strength in courses of a mathematical nature and a satisfactory acquaintance with experimental aspects of physics. Detailed course requirements are given below under "Requirements for Degree." Note that award of the continuing AM degree does not automatically qualify the student as a candidate for the PhD.
Faculty Committee. Each student is required by the end of the second year to select a faculty chair for a committee to advise the student on his or her research progress. The committee chair is normally one of the department members and, when feasible, a prospective thesis advisor. Under the advisement of the faculty chair, the student should also select two more faculty members to bring the total to three, at least two of whom should be members of the Department of Physics.
Qualifying Oral Examination. Each student is also expected to pass an oral examination given by his or her faculty committee ideally by the end of the second year, and certainly by the end of the third year. The purpose of the examination is two-fold: The examination aids in estimating the candidate’s potential for performing research at a level required for the doctoral thesis, and also serves as a diagnostic tool for determining whether the candidate requires changes to his or her program of research and study.
For the examination, each student is asked to select, prepare, and discuss in depth a topic in physics, and to answer questions from the faculty committee both about that topic specifically and more broadly about the student’s larger subfield. Originality is welcomed but not required.
The student selects the topic—preferably but not necessarily related to the proposed field of thesis research—and then submits a title and abstract together with a list of completed course requirements (described under Program of Study) and a decision as to whether the prospective doctoral research will be experimental or theoretical. The student then confers in detail with the committee chair about the topic to be discussed and concrete expectations for the examination. The committee chair provides written approval of the topic, and the overall composition of the examination committee must be approved by Director of Graduate Studies. To ensure adequate preparation, this conference should take place at the earliest possible date, typically one to two months before the examination.
Oral examinations are evaluated on the knowledge and understanding students demonstrate about their chosen topic as well as about their general subfield. Students are also judged on the clarity and organization of their expositions. The examining committee may take into account other information about the candidate’s performance as a graduate student.
The student will pass the examination if the committee believes that he or she has demonstrated adequate comprehension of physics in the area of the chosen topic and in the larger field, as well as an ability to perform the thesis research required for the doctoral degree. Students who do not pass the qualifying oral examination on their first attempt will be encouraged by the committee to take a second examination at a later date.
The committee may upon petition grant a deferment of the examination for up to one year. Students who have not passed their oral examinations by the end of their third year of graduate study must seek approval from the Committee on Higher Degrees prior to being allowed to register for a fourth year of graduate study. If satisfactory arrangements cannot be made, the student will be withdrawn by the department. A student who wishes to change from an experimental to a theoretical thesis topic, or vice versa, may be required to pass a second qualifying oral examination.
Acceptance as a Candidate for the PhD. The final requirement for acceptance as a doctoral candidate is formal acceptance by a suitable thesis advisor, who should be a faculty member of the Department of Physics or a related department. This requirement should be met soon after the oral examination is passed.
Sometimes a student may wish to do a substantial portion of his or her thesis research under the supervision of someone who is not a faculty member of the Department of Physics or a related department. Such an arrangement must have both the approval of the student’s official departmental advisor as well as that of the Committee on Higher Degrees and the department chair.
In order to become acquainted with the various programs of research in progress and promising areas for thesis research, students should attend seminars and colloquia, and consult with their faculty advisors and upper-level graduate students. A list of the current faculty and their research programs is available at the Physics Department website.
Requirements for the Degree
Academic Residence. Ordinarily a candidate must be enrolled and in residence for at least two years (four terms) of full-time study in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Ideally, the PhD is completed within six years. The student’s committee reviews his or her progress each year. For financial residence requirements, see the GSAS Guide to Admission and Financial Aid or The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook.
Program of Study (Credit and Course Requirements). Each student is required to accumulate a total of sixteen half-courses of credit, which can include any combination of 200- or 300-level Harvard courses in physics and related fields, graduate-level courses taken by official cross-registration at MIT, and units of TIME-R (research time) or TIME-C (course time). These sixteen half-courses may overlap with some of the eight required half-courses for the optional continuing AM degree.
In fulfilling this requirement, students must obtain grades of B- or better in eight half-courses specified as follows:
- Four mandatory core courses: Physics 251a, Physics 251b, Physics 232 or Applied Physics 216, and Physics 262 or Applied Physics 284.
- Four elective courses: Four additional half-courses drawn from the following list, with at most two half-courses in any one field. Note: Not all courses listed are given every year and course offerings, numbers, and contents sometimes change. Students therefore should occasionally confer with their advisors or the chair of the Committee on Higher Degrees about their programs of study.
- Particle Physics, Field Theory, String Theory, and Mathematical Physics: Physics 245, 248, 253a, 253b, 253c, 254, 264, 283b, 283, 287a, 287br, and 289r.
- Condensed Matter Physics: Physics 266, 268r, 270, 298r, Applied Physics 225, 282, 292, 293, 295a, 295b, 296r, 298r, Engineering Sciences 247.
- Optics, Atomic, and Molecular Physics: Physics 265, 265r, 281, 285a, 285b, Applied Physics 216 (if Physics 232 is used as a core course), 217.
- Relativity and Astrophysics: Physics 210, 211, any 200-level Astronomy.
- Mechanics, Electromagnetism, and Applied Mathematics: Physics 218, 232, Applied Mathematics 201, 202, 203, 205, 210, 212, Engineering Sciences 220, 225, 240, 241, 246.
- Biological and Medical Physics: Engineering Sciences 218, and physics-related courses at the 200 level from Biophysics and Biology offerings.
- Earth and Planetary Physics: Physics-related courses at the 200 level in Earth and Planetary Sciences.
- Electronics for Scientists: Physics 223.
See Courses of Instruction for course descriptions.
Other Fields: With the approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees, a student may use 200-level courses or fields not officially listed. In place of demonstrating proficiency by satisfactory course performance, a student may also demonstrate proficiency by an oral examination, by submitting evidence of satisfactory work in appropriate courses taken at other institutions, or by other means deemed satisfactory by the Committee on Higher Degrees. Students wishing to utilize this option should submit a petition to the Committee on Higher Degrees before the end of their first year of Harvard graduate school.
The general requirements outlined above are a minimum standard and students will usually take additional courses in their selected fields as well as in others. A student need not fulfill all course requirements before beginning research.
As a result of an exchange agreement between the universities, graduate students in physics at Harvard may also enroll in lecture courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The procedure is outlined under "Cross-Registration into Courses Offered by Other Faculties" in The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook.
Laboratory. Physics 247r, equivalent laboratory experience, or an oral examination on an experimental topic is a required part of the PhD program for all students who do not submit a thesis that demonstrates experimental proficiency. Students who wish to fulfill this requirement by equivalent laboratory experience or an oral examination should obtain approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees no later than the end of their third year of residence.
Teaching. In addition to research assistantships (RAs), teaching fellowships (TFs) are important sources of support for graduate students after their first year. Because of the importance of teaching skills for a successful physics career, a one-term TF is required of all graduate students, generally within the first five years of study. This teaching experience provides an opportunity for students to develop the communication skills that are vital for careers in academics and industry.
To fulfill the teaching requirement, students must serve as a teaching fellow at least one fall or spring semester for at least 15 hours per week (3/8-time). The TF position should involve a teaching component and not merely grading.
Language. There is no formal language requirement for the PhD in physics. Students are nonetheless advised that a knowledge of certain foreign languages is extremely useful in many fields of physics.
Criteria for Satisfactory Progress. In addition to the guidelines specified by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (see The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook, Chapter VI: Degree Requirements), the physics department identifies satisfactory progress for graduate students by several key criteria.
Upon successful completion of the qualifying oral examination, the student must arrange for the appointment of a faculty committee that will monitor the progress of the student thereafter. The student must be accepted by an appropriate thesis advisor within 18 months after passing the qualifying oral examination.
During each subsequent year, the student must submit a progress report in the form specified by the Committee on Higher Degrees. The progress report must be approved by the student’s faculty committee and the Committee on Higher Degrees, who will evaluate the student’s progress toward the completion of the degree. The Committee on Higher Degrees will examine with special care students beyond their fifth year.
For other types of extensions or leave-of-absence policies, consult Chapter VI of The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Handbook.
Dissertation Defense. Toward the end of the student’s thesis research, the student should arrange a dissertation committee, which consists of at least three faculty members and is chaired by a member of the Harvard Department of Physics. At least two members of the dissertation committee, including the chair, must be members of FAS. A non-FAS thesis advisor should be a member of the dissertation committee, but cannot serve as its official chair.
The dissertation defense consists of an oral final examination delivered to the dissertation committee that involves a searching analysis of the student’s thesis. If the student’s coursework does not indicate a wide proficiency in the field of the thesis, the examination may be extended to test this proficiency as well.
The candidate must provide draft copies of the completed thesis for members of the dissertation committee at least three weeks in advance of the examination. The department requires one bound copy of the final thesis, which students can order through the online dissertation submission system. Detailed requirements on the thesis are published in The Form of the PhD Dissertation (available online at www.gsas.harvard.edu), available at the department office.
Master of Arts (AM)
The Department of Physics does not admit graduate students whose sole purpose is to study for the Master of Arts (AM) degree. However, the AM degree is frequently taken by students who continue on for the PhD degree. For those who do not attain the doctorate, the AM degree attests to the completion of a full year’s study beyond the bachelor’s degree.
Program of Study (Credit Requirements)
Eight half-courses taken while enrolled at Harvard are required for the continuing AM degree. At least four must be physics courses, and ordinarily all must be in physics or related fields like applied physics, applied math, chemistry, biophysics, engineering, or astronomy. Not more than two half-courses may be from the 100-level listing, "for undergraduates and graduates," and ordinarily not more than one half-course may be from the 300-level group, "Reading and Research." The remainder must be from the 200 level, "primarily for graduates," or graduate-level courses taken by official cross-registration at MIT. (There is no limit on the number of the eight half-courses taken at MIT.)
With the permission of their advisors and with the approval of the Committee on Higher Degrees, students may substitute 300-level courses for more than one of the required eight half-courses. For students who were previously undergraduates at Harvard, only bracketed courses taken as an undergraduate can count toward the AM degree. Courses counted toward the AM degree are also counted toward the PhD.
All half-courses counted toward the AM degree must be passed with a grade of C- or better, and a B average must be obtained in these courses. (In calculating the average, a grade of C is offset by a grade of A; no account is taken of pluses or minuses.)
No thesis, general examination, or knowledge of a foreign language is required for the AM degree. The minimum residence requirement is one year.
Undergraduate candidates for the AB-AM degree in physics must meet both the academic and course requirements for the honors AB degree in physics and the AM degree. A given course can be counted for only one of the two degrees—one course cannot meet the requirement for the AB degree and then be counted again for the AM degree.
Any undergraduate who wishes to apply for the AB-AM degree must submit an application to the graduate program in physics. This application should include two letters of recommendation. (The GRE is not required.) Only students with advanced standing are eligible to apply for this four-year program. Undergraduates taking graduate courses in their third year may bracket those that they wish to apply toward their graduate degree.
Further information about courses and programs of study in physics may be obtained from our website, or from the Department Graduate Program Administrator:
Department of Physics
17 Oxford Street
Cambridge, MA 02138