Engineering FAQs

Answers to common questions asked by current students

What’s the difference between an AB and an SB?

The Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree is similar to that available through other Harvard College concentrations. In engineering concentrations at SEAS, the A.B. degree requires 14 to 16 half-courses (dependent on a student’s math placement). This degree provides solid preparation for the practice of engineering, and it provides outstanding preparation for graduate study in engineering and careers in other professions (finance, business, law, medicine, etc.). Due to its moderate total course requirements, the A.B. offers greater flexibility than the S.B. degree, allowing students to pursue their interests outside of engineering, or giving them the freedom to selectively deepen their engineering education by taking additional technical courses of their choice. Students who have pursued the A.B. degree have gone on to top graduate programs in engineering, computer science, medicine, and related fields.

The Bachelor of Science (S.B.) degree programs require a minimum of 20 half-courses, and gives students the level of technical depth comparable to accredited engineering programs at other major universities. The additional course requirements in the S.B. program provide students with greater depth in their chosen area, as well as S.B.-specific courses in engineering design. In their junior year, S.B. concentrators take a team-based design course (typically ES 96), which provides the opportunity to be part of a multidisciplinary team that will analyze and design a prototype solution for a real-world engineering problem. Past ES 96 projects have included designing a shoe insert to detect the early formation of diabetic ulcers and a novel research instrument to measure atmospheric ozone concentrations while suspended in the payload of a high-altitude balloon. In their senior year, all S.B. concentrators take a year-long capstone design course (ES 100hf) in which they design and prototype a solution to an engineering problem of their own choice. This project is their senior design thesis. In addition to providing exceptional preparation for graduate school and careers in other professions, an S.B. degree also provides outstanding preparation for a career in professional engineering practice.

Can you tell me more about ABET?

The S.B. programs in Electrical Engineering, Engineering Sciences, and Mechanical Engineering are accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET (http://www.abet.org), the accreditation agency for engineering programs in the United States. Completing an undergraduate degree from an ABET-accredited program is necessary to sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering (F.E.) examination, which is typically the first step in the process leading to licensure as a Professional Engineer (P.E.). 

Why should I study a particular area of engineering?

All engineering students at SEAS select a particular area of engineering through their choice of concentration, or a specific track within a concentration.  Each area offers both common and distinct opportunities for learning and exploration. While there are many commonalities across engineering fields (e.g., the engineering design process and mathematical analysis), each discipline has its own set of core knowledge, skills, and technologies that are specific to solving the motivating problems and advancing innovation within the field. By following the requirements for a specific area, students are assured of receiving depth within their chosen discipline and breadth across engineering as a whole.

Does Harvard offer a degree in other engineering areas?

Harvard currently offers A.B. and S.B. options in each of the four core areas mentioned above (BE, EE, ESE, and ME), as well as an AB track in Engineering Physics. Students with engineering interests outside of these core areas can explore the topic through coursework (including cross-registering for courses at MIT), term-time and summer research experiences, and their thesis or capstone design project. Additionally, students whose interests span the disciplines offered in SEAS may apply to the Cross-Disciplinary Track of the Engineering Sciences S.B. concentration, which provides the flexibility to develop a specific program of study that bridges the core engineering areas.

What will my diploma say?

Your diploma (and official university transcript) will list the name of your concentration and will not include information about any designated tracks within that concentration.  For example, a student graduating from the Biomedical Sciences and Engineering track of the Engineering Sciences A.B. concentration will have a diploma that reads Bachelor of Arts in Engineering Sciences; while a student graduating from the Biomedical Engineering A.B. program will have a diploma that reads Bachelor of Arts in Biomedical Engineering.

Can I do an engineering secondary?

There are currently no Secondary Fields offered in any of the engineering disciplines. However, many engineering concentrators pursue a secondary in other fields.

How many students are there in engineering?

Here are the number of concentrators across all engineering areas over the last several years:          

Academic Year

Number of Concentrators

2015-2016 259
2014-2015 258

2013-2014

255

2012-2013

236

2011-2012

211

2010-2011

170

2009-2010 146

How demanding is the workload for a typical course?

Concentrators can expect to invest the same amount of time in their courses as students pursuing concentrations in the natural or physical sciences (e.g., biology, physics, chemistry, etc.).

What math should I start in?

Students graduating from the engineering concentrations have had success starting in Math Ma through Math 21a or higher. In general, we recommend that students begin taking mathematics in their first semester, and plan to have completed at least the introductory mathematics sequence through Applied Math 21b (or equivalent) by the end of their sophomore year. Freshmen are encouraged to talk with advisers in the Mathematics Department to discuss their placement scores and the most appropriate course with which to begin. Students who start in Math Ma are encouraged to speak with an ADUS as soon as possible to discuss course planning and the appropriate sequencing of upper-level courses with mathematics prerequisites.

When should I take physics?

Physics provides a scientific basis for all of your upper-level engineering courses.  We strongly encourage completion of the physics requirements in your freshman or sophomore years.

When should I take chemistry?

We recommend that you take chemistry in your freshman or sophomore year.  Chemistry will be a prerequisite for some upper-level environmental engineering and bioengineering courses. In addition, students wishing to attend medical school will need chemistry background for the MCAT.

When should I take CS 50?

CS 50 can be taken at any time during your engineering education.  We have had students successfully take CS 50 from freshman year through senior year.  A programming background is helpful but not required for most upper-level engineering courses. The exception is concentrators in Electrical Engineering, who will benefit from taking CS 50 in their freshman or sophomore year.

Is a thesis required?

For an A.B. degree, a research thesis is strongly encouraged but not required; a thesis is necessary to be considered for High or Highest Honors. Additionally, a thesis will be particularly useful for students interested in pursuing graduate engineering research.  In the S.B. degree programs, every student completes a design thesis as part of the required senior capstone design course (ES 100hf).

What kind of research opportunities are there?

Students can leverage research opportunities in any of the faculty research labs at SEAS.  These labs conduct research in robotics, computer vision, tissue engineering, medical devices, cellular engineering, environmental technology, and alternative energy, just to name a few.  Students can seek funding for research through the Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE), Harvard College Research Program (HCRP), and Herchel Smith Fellowship. Students may also seek opportunities for research at Harvard Medical School, affiliated Harvard institutes, and at MIT.

Are there engineering-related extracurriculars or student clubs?

Yes, some examples of our clubs are Engineers Without Borders, Women in Computer Science, RoboCup, and the Biomedical Engineering Society. SEAS also provides Nectar funding to support independent co-curricular student projects. More information can be found on the SEAS website.

What is the Sophomore Forum?

The Sophomore Forum is a required non-credit seminar series taken in spring of the sophomore year.  The forum will introduce you to the various engineering disciplines, as well as to engineers from academia and industry working in different careers.

How are Engineering and Computer Science related?

Computer Science is fundamentally the study of information and the feasibility of computing. Computer scientists perform research on software, graphics, artificial intelligence, networks, parallel and distributed systems, algorithms, and theory. Engineering is fundamentally the design of new systems to meet societal needs. The tools of computer science are certainly necessary for engineering work, particularly for engineering work that involves modeling, information processing, robotics, and data analysis.

How are Engineering and Applied Math related?

Applied mathematics focuses on the creation and study of mathematical and computational tools broadly applicable in science and engineering, and on their use in solving challenging problems in these and related fields.  Engineers use the tools of applied mathematics for the design of new systems to meet societal needs.