Chemistry and Chemical Biology

PhD Course Requirements 

Students must pass four advanced four-credit courses in chemistry and/or related fields (e.g., biochemistry, physics, etc.) with average grades of B or higher. Grades of B- will count as a pass if balanced by a B+ or better on a one-for-one basis. Grades of C+ or lower will not count. An advanced course is one designated in the announcement of courses as “for undergraduates and graduates” or “primarily for graduates” with the exception of the following courses that cannot be used for credit toward the PhD degree in Chemistry: Chemistry 100r, 135, 145, 160, and 165; Physics 143a, 143b; Chemical Biology 2200, and Molecular and Cellular Biology 121. Courses numbered 300 or above also do not count toward this requirement.

All incoming graduate students (G1s) are required to take Chemistry 301hf. Scientific Teaching and Communication: Practicum in their first year. This course will teach graduate students how to communicate scientific concepts in the classroom.

During Orientation, incoming students will formulate a Plan of Study in consultation with a member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC). The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses, and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original Plan of Study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

Students normally satisfy the letter-graded requirements in the first two years of graduate studies. In consultation with the CAC, special arrangements may also be made in the following circumstances:

(a) Advanced courses passed with honor grades by a Harvard undergraduate, who is subsequently admitted to the Graduate School, may be counted in fulfillment of the departmental course requirement. They may be counted for residence requirements only if in excess of the courses required for the AB degree.

(b) Students who have taken elsewhere the equivalent of a Harvard advanced course may, by arrangement with the Curriculum Advising Committee, meet the requirement with respect to that course without enrollment by fulfilling such requirements as the instructor in the course stipulates (see Chapter V, "Credit for Work Done Elsewhere").


Incoming graduate students are required to participate in three 4-week rotations in different laboratories, OR they may conduct one 8-week and one 4-week rotation in two different laboratories. The goal of the rotations is to broaden a student’s scientific perspective by exposure to the science and environment of different laboratories. Students may rotate with faculty outside the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, with the approval of the director of graduate studies. Anyone wishing to do a rotation in an outside department is encouraged to contact the outside faculty member directly to discuss the possibility of a rotation.


During Orientation, each incoming student meets with an assigned member of the Curriculum Advising Committee (CAC) to formulate a Plan of Study. The CAC advises students on their academic plans, approves required courses, and assists in decisions related to the PhD program. Any changes to the original Plan of Study must be discussed with and approved by a member of the CAC.

During rotations, once in a lab, each rotation student will be assigned a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor. Mentors are a valuable resource for rotation students, providing guidance and advice regarding lab practices and policies.

Admission to a research group is strongly encouraged by the start of the student's second term. Students are required to enter a research group by June 30th of their first year. Once a student joins a research group, the faculty member of that group becomes the student’s advisor. If a student subsequently finds that another area of research more closely matches his or her interests, the student should consult with the director of graduate studies or co-director of graduate studies. Students are encouraged to consult with the co-director of graduate studies on any issues that affect graduate student life.


PhD Research Progress and Evaluation

 (Effective with entering class of 2017-18)

A primary teaching mission of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB) faculty is to develop and nurture a graduate student’s ability to perform original and creative research. Three student/faculty meetings over the course of a graduate career are important components of this training mission. Each of the meetings have a different purpose with the objectives of assessing the expertise of a student in performing independent research (2nd year PhD Qualifying Exam), monitoring a student’s research progress and guiding the student in developing an original research program (3rd year Proposal / Research Review Meeting), and offering advice for the professional development of the graduate student (4th year Advising Meeting).

G2 PhD Qualifying Examination

All students will be required to pass a PhD Qualifying Examination to advance their candidacy to the PhD The purpose of the Qualifying Examination is to assess the (i) early research progress of the PhD candidate and (ii) fundamental knowledge underpinning the student’s PhD research project.

The director of graduate studies (DGS) will assign each student a PhD Qualifying Committee by June 30th of the G1 year. The committee will consist of four CCB faculty members including the student’s research advisor, with one member designated as Chair. Each committee will examine four to six students. If a research project involves an advisor (primary or collaborative) external to the CCB, then that faculty may attend as a 5th member. The Chair will administer the PhD Qualifying Examination and s/he will schedule the exam meeting. Meetings for all G2 students will be held in April of the G2 year and a given committee will administer exams for the four to six students in one day or two consecutive days. This meeting may only be delayed if the student has an approved leave of absence during the first two years, in which case the meeting must be held during the 4th term in residence. The Chair from each committee will notify students of the exam results in a letter by the end of the week in which the exam was scheduled.

Exam format. The examination will have both written and oral components:

  • The written examination will be no more than 5 single-spaced pages written in a Communication- style format reporting key results of accomplished research and including a brief discussion of future plans. The written examination must be submitted at least 7 days prior to the oral examination.


  • The oral examination consists of a 20-minute PowerPoint or blackboard presentation (as decided by the student) followed with 40 minutes of Questions and Answers by committee members. Committee members will not interrupt the student during the 20-minute presentation. Adherence to the guidelines of the 20-minute presentation will be enforced by the Chair of the committee. During the 40 minute Q&A session, queries from committee members will span specific aspects of the research project to explore the fundamental knowledge underpinning the research project. With regard to the latter, questions will focus on material typically covered in an undergraduate chemistry curriculum that relates to the broadly defined area of the research project.

There will be three results from the PhD Qualifying Examination:

  • Pass: The student will become a candidate for a PhD and a thesis committee will be formed by the end of the term (see below).
  • Conditional Pass: The student will be re-examined by the committee before the end of the fall term of the G3 year. The format of the re-examination will be decided by the committee and may involve a written report to address specific concerns of the committee or re-assembly of the committee.
  • Fail: The student will withdraw from the program at the end of the term, with the opportunity to receive an AM.= degree, provided other requirements have been met as outlined in the GSAS Handbook (Ch. VI).

Constitution of PhD Thesis Committee

Upon passing the PhD Qualifying Examination, a three- member Thesis Committee will be formed, which will include the student's faculty advisor and two other faculty members. Two members of the committee must be from CCB. The third faculty member may be from CCB or from an external department associated with Harvard University. A student may also petition the DGS for approval of a third faculty member external to Harvard University. A student, in consultation with their research advisor, may add external members beyond the three-person committee.

To constitute the committee, in consultation with their research advisor, students will propose at least three faculty members as candidates for their committees in addition to the advisor. The student will submit their faculty preferences on a Thesis Committee Nomination Form, submitted to the CCB Department office by the end of the term in which they qualify for the PhD. The form must be signed by the research advisor. These preferences will be reviewed by the DGS and a faculty advisory group with the intent of honoring the student’s preferences while balancing a fairly distributed committee load among the faculty. The selection process is necessary to avoid faculty being assigned to an inordinately large number of committees. Under unusual circumstances, students may wish to change the membership of their thesis committee, for reasons including significant changes in direction of their research topic. Such changes should be requested through the CCB Department office. Students must receive approval from the DGS in order for the change in committee to take effect.

G3 Proposal / Research Review Meeting

The one-hour meeting should be held with a student’s Thesis Committee before May 31st of the G3 year and will be scheduled by the student. The meeting will have two components: (i) a research proposal and (ii) review of research to date.

  • A Research Proposal will compose 30 minutes of the 1-hour meeting. Students will submit a 3-5 page single-spaced proposal 7 days before the meeting. The student may present either an original independent research proposal or a research proposal based on the student's current PhD research. The student will present this proposal and accept questions from the committee during the first 30 minutes of the meeting. A student cannot pass/fail the Research Proposal. The purpose of the research proposal is to better develop the student’s skill set at conceiving and designing an original research program. For an original research proposal, the proposal will be rated (excellent, very good or good) with a short written critique provided by the committee designed to provide the student feedback that helps to develop further this skill (of writing proposals).


  • A 30-minute Research Review will be devoted to an update of the research progress made by the student. The research review will be graded Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory. A grade of Unsatisfactory will be reflected in the grade for the student's 300-level reading and research course. This alone will not result in a withdrawal; a student would be withdrawn from the program with two grades of Unsatisfactory in a 300-level reading and research course during the course of a student’s graduate studies, in accordance with the policies outlined in the GSAS Handbook (Ch. VI).

G4 Advisory Meeting

The G4 Advisory Meeting provides a mechanism for students to create relationships with faculty other than their advisor, as well as to mediate student/advisor conflict, if one exists, provide direction to completion of the PhD degree, provide career counseling or to address any other concern or issue of interest to the student. The student must call this meeting any time during the G4 year.

The agenda will be set by the student and may address research progress or career counseling in one of two meeting formats:

  • The student may assemble their Thesis Committee for a formal 1-hour meeting.


  • In lieu of a full meeting of the Thesis Committee, the student may instead choose to meet individually with one or two of their committee members other than their advisor.

For either meeting format, the student must first meet with their research advisor to discuss a (i) professional development (PD) plan, and (ii) proposed plan to graduation (PG). The student will summarize these discussions on two separate forms (PD Form and PG Form), available from the CCB Department office or from the departmental website. The research advisor must sign off on the two forms. Students will bring these two signed forms to their G4 meeting (either format) for review by the members of the Thesis Committee with whom the student chooses to meet. The signed forms will be returned to the CCB Department office.

G6+ Advisory Meeting

Students in their G6 year must meet with their Thesis Committee by December 31st of their G6 year and then every year beyond the G6 year. A detailed plan for the student's graduation and a proposed defense date will be decided at these meetings.


PhD Research Progress and Evaluation

(Effective for students entering program before 2017-18)

Students who entered the degree program before 2017-18 will continue to be advised by their Graduate Advising Committee (GAC), formed at the end of the G2 year. The GAC consists of the student’s advisor and two other faculty members, one of whom must be a CCB faculty member. Students report their progress to the GAC at least once per year, beginning in their G2 year. The GAC may require more frequent meetings depending on the student’s progress, especially as the dissertation defense nears.

Students are expected to present and defend an independent research proposal anytime between the first semester of their G2 year and the end of their G4 year (June 30th). Any one of the G2, G3, or G4 GAC committee meetings can serve as the independent research proposal meeting. Students are required to choose topics that are distinct from their PhD research, and the final topic should be arrived at in consultation with their advisor. The student with his/her advisor will decide when to present the independent research proposal.

Completing an independent research proposal will expand a student’s base scientific knowledge and provide a formal exercise in identifying research projects in interesting and promising areas of research. The objectives of the independent research proposal program are:

  1. To provide students the opportunity to:
    1. Think deeply and creatively about a significant research problem and propose how that problem can be addressed experimentally.
    2. Develop writing skills by preparing a clear and concise scientific document.
    3. Develop oral presentation skills and engage in scientific discourse.
  2. To provide students with a forum to receive constructive, critical feedback from faculty members.

The oral exam is expected to be 30 to 60 minutes in duration. During the presentation, students should be prepared to answer questions concerning the proposal topic as well as allied areas. Questions of a more general nature or of topical interest (e.g. recent CCB seminars) may also be asked. At the end of the independent research proposal presentation, there will be a short discussion on research progress to date.


A thorough command of oral and written English is required. Incoming PhD students who are non-native speakers of English and who have not received their undergraduate degree from an English-speaking institution will have their English proficiency tested by the Institute of English Language (IEL). Students who are not deemed proficient will be required to take courses at the IEL to develop their English language skills as part of their preparation for teaching and professional development. Students will not be allowed to teach until they are deemed proficient.


All students are expected to teach in the spring term of their first year and during one term of the second year based on teaching needs. With their advisor’s approval, a student may also teach in subsequent years.

Satisfactory Progress

Continuation in the degree program is contingent on the following: (1) satisfactory completion of required coursework, (2) successful completion of the PhD Qualifying Examination * , (3) admission to a research group during the second term in residence, unless extension of time has been approved by the director of graduate studies, and (4) satisfactory progress in 300-level research courses.

* Students who entered the program before 2017-18 must have completed the successful presentation and defense of an independent research proposal, instead of the PhD Qualifying Examination.


The preparation of a satisfactory dissertation normally requires at least four years of full-time research. The final manuscript must conform to the requirements described online in The Form of the PhD Dissertation.

All students are expected to provide a public presentation of their PhD research. The dissertation defense will be comprised of two parts: 1) a public presentation of the student’s PhD research to which members of the CCB community will be invited, followed by 2) the private PhD dissertation defense before the dissertation defense committee (generally the GAC). One of the readers must be a faculty member of the department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (generally the advisor). Two members of the committee must be members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Faculty members from other schools at Harvard who hold appointments on GSAS degree committees as well as FAS emeriti and research professors may serve as a member of the dissertation committee. Faculty of institutions outside of Harvard may serve as a member of the dissertation committee providing the requirement of two readers from the FAS (one being a CCB faculty member; generally the advisor) is met.

Master of Arts Degree (AM)

The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology does not grant a terminal AM degree. However, upon completion of certain requirements, students in the Chemistry PhD program may apply for the AM degree. A thesis is not required. The requirements for this degree are:


A minimum of one year of full-time study is required.

Course Requirements and Research

The student must pass eight advanced four-credit courses diversified among the fields of chemistry with average grades of B or higher. Grades of B- will count as a pass if balanced by a B+ or better on a one-for-one basis. Grades of C+ or below will not count. Typically, four of these four-credit courses are classroom work, and the remaining four are research courses. As many as four four-credit courses of the required eight may be taken outside the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, provided the Curriculum Advising Committee approves them. Students planning to take such courses should petition the CAC in advance of taking the courses in order to have them count for the AM degree.

Approval of the application for the AM degree is contingent upon the satisfactory completion of the required eight four-credit courses. Proper documentation of passing grades on applicable bracketed courses (i.e., GSAS transcripts) must be received by the department office before approval of the AM degree is granted.