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PhD Overview and Timeline

Given here are School-wide graduate degree policies and guidance.  Program-specific degree options, requirements, and model programs can be found on the "Graduate Programs" pages under each of the subject areas listed in Academics.

Accommodations for the Covid-19-related shift to remote instruction

While Harvard is in remote-operations mode, the following changes to policies and expectations for PhD, ME and SM students are in effect; please check back here for updates.

If you have questions, please contact:

Graduate Program Forms and I-9 Employment Forms

All SEAS graduate forms may be submitted via email to Please cc the appropriate advisor or DGS if needed asking them to confirm their agreement.

UPDATED: Currently, all I-9s are being completed remotely via Zoom with a Harvard Administrator and an adult in your household who can serve as an Authorized Representative. We will update this page once we have more information.

Qualifying Exams, Defenses, and Committee Meetings

  • 2021 UPDATE: All policy restrictions on remote participation by committee members in SEAS PhD qualifying exams and defenses are suspended through at least October 31, 2021. Remote participation by the student, committee members (and for defenses, any guests) is required as long as Harvard's remote-work directive is in place -- pending future guidance, so that you can plan please assume this will be the case through the summer 2021.
  • G3+ committee meetings can take place via videoconference. Expectations regarding timing are relaxed; check with your committee members on how they would like to proceed.
  • Zoom videoconferencing is recommended for all such oral exams and meetings; see .

The Office of Academic Programs will assume that any quals and defenses already scheduled will proceed unless we hear otherwise from you; mail if you are scheduling or changing the date of a defense or qual exam, or with general inquiries. And watch your email for updates!

Tips on using Zoom for defenses, committee meetings etc

General tips: 

  • With a typical recent laptop or iPhone, one can either share presentation slides or point the camera at a whiteboard or chalkboard.
  • A committee member who is not the student or advisor should host or be made a co-host of the Zoom meeting. That way, in any portion of the exam or meeting in which the student, advisor, or (for defenses) guests need to leave, the meeting can continue. The (co-)hosting committee member may simply specify when others should return to the meeting after any private discussion.
  • For defenses with guests attending, the host may want to disable the “ding” when people enter and have it automatically mute mics on entry.
  • Alternatively Zoom's "breakout session" functionality can be used if the committee member host is comfortable using with Zoom's advanced features.

These tips come from Tony Zhou, our first student to hold an all-Zoom defense:

  1. Practice Zoom to know how to do breakout room, annotation, mute and unmute participants
  2. Schedule a defense with setting that people enter without Chime sound
  3. Enter the zoom meeting 5 mins before the official meeting
  4. Double check the setting in the meeting to disable “Play Enter/Exit Chime”
  5. When meeting time officially starts, make your committee co-hosts. (This is important besides having co-hosts to regulate the meeting because I had a wireless disconnection and had to reconnect back into the defense. If I was the sole host/co-host, it may end the meeting of 30-50 people.)
  6. Enable “Mute Participants on Entry”
  7. Disable “Allow Participants to unmute” (In general, it’s good to only allow committee who are presumably co-hosts to interrupt and ask questions during defense but general audience should ask questions at very end at Q&A session.)
  8. Make sure to unmute committee and have adviser to introduce the speaker.
  9. After Q&A, the speaker (host) makes breakout room to assign committee to enter and privately discuss speaker’s PhD fate.
Degree Credit for 2020 Summer School or other Online Coursework

Longstanding SEAS policy is that only grad, i.e., 200-level, Harvard Summer School courses are allowed to be used towards SEAS SM, ME and PhD degrees.  200-level Summer School courses are pretty much non-existent however.  For summer 2020 and academic year 2020-2021 SEAS is broadening what summer and/or online courses can be used:

  1. If a given class in Harvard Summer School or on HarvardX is demonstrably the same as a 100- or 200-level course that the CHD would ordinarily consider on a program plan then such a class can be included on a program plan, and similarly for an MITx G-level class.  One example would be Prof. Yue Lu’s ENSC S-138 which is the same as on-campus ES 150.  Basically we’d be looking for confirmation (in the course description, or from the professor directly, etc.) that it’s the same as a given professor’s in-semester class.
  2. [For PhD and MS/MBA students] If a given class in Harvard Summer School or from HarvardX or MITx is not the same as an on-campus class, a student can petition the CHD by providing a syllabus/description/etc.  The student should demonstrate that the course is of appropriate (grad) level, technical rigour and amount of content.  This is a high bar to meet, especially given the limited information typically available on these courses – not many courses are expected to meet this standard.  Also note that HMx and HBS Online are not part of HarvardX and are not included in this new policy.
  3. In all cases the class would have to be taken for a credential – a satisfactory (letter or binary) grade or a HarvardX/MITx certificate.
  4. For various reasons, some of them legal, this is currently limited to a maximum of 1 such class per student.

After CHD approval, the student needs to petition the Registrar via the “Credit for Coursework Done Elsewhere” form.  Note that SEAS has no connection with the Summer Schools or HarvardX/MITx and has no arrangement with them regarding tuition coverage, so students should count on needing to pay any tuition out of pocket.

  • MS/MBA students: please follow the MS/MBA Chair's emailed instructions of May 7 for how to proceed with this option
  • IACS students: please follow Daniel Weinstock's instructions for how to proceed with this option
  • PhD students: if you intend to take a class during summer 2020 and want CHD feedback beforehand, please submit a new program plan and supporting documentation about the proposed online course to Ann Greaney-Williams by May 26 -- and you are encouraged to submit ASAP.  We’ll do our best to get you the CHD’s response reasonably promptly.
  • AB/SM students: This new policy also applies for the “SM only” part of your curriculum, i.e., for a course that is not also being used towards your AB degree.  However, since the College controls your overall enrollment, you would need to establish with your Resident Dean that taking advantage of this new option is alright with the College.  If you secure that, please contact Abby Rahn to proceed.


Spring 2020 Course Grades -- PhD, M.E. and terminal Master of Science students

Ordinarily all courses used for GSAS degrees must be taken for a letter grade, but with the current disruption to normal instruction GSAS has made all grades "Emergency Sat/Unsat" (denoted "SEM" and "UEM" on transcripts) for spring 2020.  This supersedes GSAS's previous option for students to petition to take individual classes for a Sat/Unsat grade.  "SEM" denotes "B- or better work" in GSAS. 

Aligned with the GSAS measure, SEAS will allow students to use "Sat" and "SEM" grades in spring 2020 classes towards the PhD, ME, and SM degrees in lieu of letter grades. No special CHD approval will be needed.   Master of Science students, and PhD students seeking the SM degree en route: if you receive a UEM grade in a course you intended to use for the Master of Science degree, please contact John Girash, or (for IACS students) Daniel Weinstock about how to proceed.

Also, SEAS will also allow students to use "Pass" or "PE" grades in spring 2020 classes taken by cross-registration (e.g., classes at MIT or in other Harvard schools). No FAS/GSAS/SEAS petition is needed.

All other degree requirements remain in place, including which courses you need for any given degree.  Normal grading resumes in fall 2020.

Spring 2020 Course Grades -- AB/SM students

The College has mandated that all undergraduates receive "SEM/UEM" grades in all of their Spring 2020 classes (i.e., this policy applies to the student, not the type of class in which the student is enrolled nor the degree(s) to which the course is applied). See for more information on new College grading policies.

Students may use “SEM” grades from Spring 2020 courses towards SM degree requirements in any SEAS subject area. All other SM general and area-specific degree requirements remain in place, including that all Program Plans are subject to review by the CHD.

General Ph.D. Requirements

  • 10 semester-long graduate courses, including at least 8 disciplinary.  At least 5 of the 10 should be graduate-level SEAS "technical" courses (or FAS graduate-level technical courses taught by SEAS faculty), not including seminar/reading/project courses.  Undergraduate-level courses cannot be used.  For details on course requirements, see the school's overall PhD course requirements and the individual program pages linked therein.
  • Program Plan (i.e., the set of courses to be used towards the degree) approval by the Committee on Higher Degrees (CHD).
  • Minimum full-time academic residency of two years.
  • Serve as a Teaching Fellow (TF) in one semester of the second year.
  • Oral Qualifying Examination
    Preparation in the major field is evaluated in an oral examination by a qualifying committee. The examination has the dual purpose of verifying the adequacy of the student's preparation for undertaking research in a chosen field and of assessing the student's ability to synthesize knowledge already acquired. For details on arranging your Qualifying Exam, see the exam policies and the individual program pages linked therein.
  • Committee Meetings: PhD students' research committees meet according to the guidelines in each area's "Committee Meetings" listing.  For details see the "G3+ Committee Meetings" section of the Policies of the CHD and the individual program pages linked therein.
  • Final Oral Examination (Defense)
    This public examination devoted to the field of the dissertation is conducted by the student's research committee. It includes, but is not restricted to, a defense of the dissertation itself.  For details of arranging your final oral exam see the Ph.D. Timeline page.
  • Dissertation
    Upon successful completion of the qualifying examination, a committee chaired by the research supervisor is constituted to oversee the dissertation research. The dissertation must, in the judgment of the research committee, meet the standards of significant and original research.

Optional additions to the Ph.D. program

Harvard PhD students may choose to pursue these additional aspects:

SEAS PhD students may apply to participate in the Health Sciences and Technology graduate program with Harvard Medical School and MIT.

PhD Timeline

First Year (G1)


  • Early September:
    • Notify your financial aid officers of any external funding.
      Contact: Erin Bishop in SEAS Finance and Tracey Newman in GSAS Financial Aid.
    • Make note of the course registration deadline.
      (previously known as "Study Card Day"). See the GSAS Policies Academic Calendar.
  • Mid-September:
    • Register for courses before the deadline (previously known as "Study Card Day")


  • Mid-January: Deadline for submitting materials to be reviewed at the January CHD meetings.
  • Late-January: Course registration deadline (previously known as "Study Card Day").
  • Mid-February: Deadline for submitting materials to be reviewed at the March CHD meetings
  • April 1: Research Advisor Selection Form/Research Assistant appointment form due to Office of Academic Programs.
  • Early-April: Deadline for submitting materials to be reviewed at the April CHD meetings.
    • Note: The April CHD meeting is the last CHD meeting in all academic year. CHD does not meet over the summer. Remember to plan ahead.

Second year (G2)

Throughout year

  • Teaching Fellows (TFing):
    • G2’s are required to serve as a Teaching Fellow in either the Fall or Spring semester.
    • Make sure you complete the TF form once you line up a TF position! 
  • Qualifying Exam:
    • G2’s are required to take their qualifying exam in either the Fall or Spring terms.
    • Email quals_defenses@seas to book a room. If you book your own room (e.g., external to SEAS) you must still email quals_defenses@seas well in advance in order for your required documentation to be ready, else your exam cannot take place.
    • Upon completion of the exam, students are required to submit the Designation of Research Committee form to OAP.
    • If you plan to request a delay of the qualifying exam, complete a Request to Delay Qual Exam form. Note that delays until September (i.e. start of G3 year) are typically approved as a matter of course



  • Late-January: Course Registration Deadline (previously known as "Study Card Day"). See the GSAS Policies Academic Calendar.
  • May 1: Advising Agreement form due to OAP.
  • May: Commencement and diploma options for Masters en Route / Continuing Master’s students - You can apply to receive your S.M. degree en route to your PhD after you have completed eight of your core courses (this requirement may depend on area). You will receive your S.M. diploma, and participate in the Commencement if you choose to. However since you will be considered a non-terminal degree recipient, you will not be able to join the ceremony in Sander's Theater. 

Third year (G3+) and beyond

Throughout year

  • Meet with your Research Committee at least annually, as indicated by your area's expectations.
  • Send any changes to your Final Program Plan to the CHD for review. See the CHD page for submission dates.  Note that the Committee on Higher Degrees expects students not to petition for a revised Program Plan less than a year prior to the final defense in case additional coursework is required, so it's important to keep your plan up to date with your courses as actually taken.
  • Inform OAP of any changes to your research committee
  • PhD candidates can review their eligibility to receive an SM en route


  • Early-September: Course Registration Deadline (previously known as "Study Card Day"). See the GSAS Policies Academic Calendar.


  • Late-January: Course Registration Deadline (previously known as "Study Card Day"). See the GSAS Policies Academic Calendar
  • May 1RA reappointment form due to OAP.

Completing your degree

Degree Application

  • Check out FAS deadlines here (Registrar) or here (GSAS)
  • Complete the degree application via my.harvard by the Registrar's deadline.


  • Book a room for your final defense by emailing quals_defenses@seas.
    • If you schedule your own room (e.g., external to SEAS) you must still email quals_defenses@seas well in advance in order for your required documentation to be ready, else your defense cannot take place.  You must also get agreement from your full committee to hold your defense in a non-SEAS room.

Dissertation Submission and Commencement

  • Find out the rules for formatting and submitting your dissertation to FAS. GSAS has formatting guidance as well.
    • The best way to share your dissertation with others is by linking to the DASH copy. DASH uses persistent URLs and provides you with download statistics, and the DASH copy of your PDF will not include the signed Dissertation Acceptance Certificate (DAC). If you choose to post or share your PDF in some other way, you should remove the DAC page so that readers do not have access to the scanned signatures.
  • Get ready for commencement by updating your email and other contact information via