Why study engineering and applied sciences at Harvard?

SEAS is a small school that thinks big.

SEAS is a small school, but it exists within a university that has one of the world’s great liberal arts colleges and also leading professional schools.

That gives us the chance to address the most challenging global problems. For example, in order to do something about clean water for all of humanity, yes, technology is part of the solution but a very small part.

  • Who legally owns the water? That’s public policy and law.
  • What’s the impact on health? That’s medicine and public health.
  • Water is wrapped up in the history and culture of any society. That’s social science.
  • There are also major companies betting that water is going to be a big business opportunity. That’s the Business School.

Harvard is one of the few places in the world where you can find the breadth and depth of knowledge to address all these issues.

Harvard's breadth and depth.

The University's intellectual breadth and depth allows you to discover your own path.

Some graduate students arrive at Harvard with a clear idea of what they would like to study. Others arrive with a strong desire and steadfast determination to pursue research, but are open in terms of the particulars.

In both cases, and in every case in between, Harvard provides the intellectual breadth and resources to allow you to discover your own path.

Moreover, SEAS has increasingly strong ties and links with Harvard’s professional schools (including medicine and business), other universities throughout the world, and companies in the high-technology sector.

As over 30 percent of engineering and applied sciences faculty hold joint appointments, students have the opportunity to cross fields without ever having to leave the lab.

Harvard's intellectual prowess.

Harvard University’s doctoral programs received exceptionally high evaluations in the National Research Council’s Assessment of Research Doctoral Programs, which was released on September 28, 2010.

The long-anticipated report, a significant study of doctoral education across the nation, rated nearly 5,000 programs at 212 institutions on the basis of quantitative and faculty-assessed data concerning research productivity, student outcomes, and diversity of environment, among other variables.

Programs were given two overall ranking ranges to reflect the complexity of the data. Of the 52 Harvard programs in the survey, 27 placed as high as first in at least one of the overall rankings. Ninety percent of the University’s programs placed as high as fifth in at least one of the overall rankings.

The students share a common bond.

Here's what some of our past graduate students have said:

  • "Using engineering to solve biological problems and taking an interdisciplinary approach has broadened my horizons. I am able to get the best of many worlds: strong engineering background... and the biological, medical and global health perspective from the School of Public Health. Ultimately, the direct application and need for this vaccine is a compelling motivator. Knowing that there is a possibility to make a difference motivates me to continue to persevere."
  • "The Ph.D. program at SEAS was the only one to which I sent an application. The kind of research I was doing was cutting edge, and I wanted to design a custom curriculum that spanned multiple departments such as computer science, statistics, genetics, and neuroscience. I knew that SEAS promotes interdisciplinary collaboration, not only among its own faculty, but also with researchers in other fields, such as the life sciences."
  • "There are very few places in the world where one can spend the morning thinking about some phenomenon seen in a microfluidic device and the afternoon thinking about how fish swim or why microorganisms are shaped in the way that they are."
  • “To make a graduate degree in engineering effective, you need a strong foundation in the sciences upon which engineering fields are built. I chose Harvard over other graduate programs because it provides that strong foundation. I’ve realized that the goal is not to define scientific fields but to solve the problem with whatever skills might be


There’s plenty of life at Harvard—in the lab and beyond.

Jorge Cham introduces his well-loved comics website by saying, “Piled Higher and Deeper” is the comic strip “about life (or the lack thereof) in academia.”

Of course, academics and research at Harvard translate into hard work and long hours. People are dedicated to what they do.

But finding a work-life balance and pursuing outside activities and passions are critical to being successful as a scientist and engineer. So our faculty and students go outside the Yard, participating in the arts—from photography to dance—and taking off stress by racing motorcycles, hiking mountains in New Hampshire, or running the Boston Marathon.

On campus, quick pick-up games of Frisbee, soccer, or even volleyball (there are two sand courts in short walking distance on the north side of campus) are common sights.

Graduate students from across Harvard also share Dudley House, a student center that hosts parties and special events, lunch table discussion groups, dinner speakers, dances, faculty/student dinners, movies, ski trips, pub nights, and outings. Students may also participate in intramural athletics, a chamber orchestra and chorus, a jazz/swing band, and public service activities.

While the comic strip may treat graduate student life as a oxymoron, our students say they find there’s plenty of life at Harvard—in the lab and beyond.

You can be part Einstein and part Edison.

From understanding the behavior of materials to investigating the chemical origins of life, fundamental exploration remains an essential part of our mission.

In certain areas of research, we are known as a quiet giant. While less flashy on the surface, our reputation for nurturing basic science sets us apart. Our faculty members have published some of the most commonly cited conceptual research papers that have elucidated general principles.

At the same time, we are building a strong foundation for invention-oriented disciplines, such as computer systems research, and increasing our collaborations in broad fields like electrical engineering. The development of technologies like sensor networks and future labs will foster innovative tools and techniques in areas such as small-scale science and bioengineering.

Our faculty and students work at the interface of basic and applied research. Here you can be a thinker and a doer: part Einstein and part Edison.

Integrative science is a fact, not a theory.

We have entered an era of “integrationist” science and engineering. Life scientists draw on the expertise of chemists, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists to help them observe, analyze, and simulate complex biological processes, such as how cells differentiate and grow.

In the same way, engineers and other physical scientists take inspiration from nature, with the goal of applying some of its elegant solutions—the structure of spider silk or molecular motors—to the development of human-made materials and other engineered products.

As another case in point, Ernst van Nierop, a graduate student at SEAS, coauthored a study on the the role of bumps on humpback whale flippers with applied mathematician Michael Brenner and researcher Silas Alben.

To be successful at integrative science, researchers—from computer scientists to engineers to biologists—require the intellectual and physical resources to transcend existing disciplinary boundaries and collaborate with colleagues from other areas.

We supply the means. You supply the mind.

Innovation is encouraged.

Harvard University’s overall economic impact on the Boston area’s economy is more than $3.4 billion (2002 figures, reported by Appleseed, Inc.).

Our faculty play an increasingly large role in sustaining this growth engine by developing new technologies, from new types of materials like black silicon to novel drug delivery methods like nanoparticle inhalation, and by supporting critical basic research ranging from quantum physics to theoretical computer science.

In addition to fostering relationships with industry and government labs, Harvard serves as an “incubator” for new ideas and has dedicated programs that aid faculty and student innovation and entrepreneurship.

Dynamic community.

Harvard graduate students have ample opportunities to take advantage of what the University, a dynamic community within a hub of higher education, and the surrounding area, a richly complex city of surprisingly small dimensions and a broad range of attractions, have to offer.

Cambridge boasts everything from street musicians to fine dining. Local institutions are also all within easy reach, including Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, and the Museum of Fine Arts, home of some of the best examples of American painting.

Fodor’s, the travel guide experts, entry on Boston captures the complexity and energy you will find: “History and culture can be found at every turn in Boston, but a down-to-earth attitude can always be found on the edges of its New England pride. The city defies stereotype because it consists of different layers.”

While the weather and traffic can be unpredictable, you are brisk walk away from one of the most beautiful urban parks in the U.S., a short subway ride away from the ocean, and a few hours drive away from the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the peaceful beauty of Vermont, and the stunning coastline of Maine.

Harvard graduate Oliver Wendell Holmes called Boston the “hub of the solar systems”, but one of its best benefits is all that surrounds it.


Harvard is an extremely diverse, cosmopolitan, cultural community. 

At SEAS, about half of the graduate student population is from outside of the United States.

The University and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provide extensive support for students from all walks of life and from all parts of the world.

Related efforts, such as the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Racial Relations, sponsor events for the entire Harvard University neighborhood, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Graduate Society caters to supporting ethnic groups among the graduate student population.

SEAS also has its own Graduate Student Advisory Council.

A Harvard degree opens up doors.

Our graduates have gone on to take positions at some of the finest research institutions in the world, including: Ben Gurion University (Israel), Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Cornell University, MIT, National University of Singapore, Princeton University, University of California–Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Sydney (Australia), University of Virginia, and right here at Harvard.

Those pursuing careers in industry and government have worked for technology companies such as Pixar, Google, and IBM; defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman; policy and research organizations such as the National Institutes of Health; banking and investment firms like Citigroup; and environmental consulting groups like Boston-based CDM.

Others have become entrepreneurs. Our graduates started Tacit Knowledge Systems and SupplyWorks, Inc.. In fact, some of the most well-known companies in the world were started by Harvard graduates—for example, Electronic Arts, 3Com, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft.

You can make a difference.

The core of SEAS and Harvard’s institutional values are to promote the betterment of society and to further our understanding of the nature of the universe.

Doing so entails a continuing dialogue over theory and empirical data, research and applications, means and ends, problems and solutions.

Ultimately, we provide an opportunity for graduate students to be active, engaged, and trailblazing participants in this ongoing conversation.