Degree Requirements

OEB has the following degree requirements that need to be fulfilled before graduation:
  1. Prescription Courses
  2. Qualifying Exam
  3. Thesis Conferences
  4. Thesis Exam
  5. Teaching Requirement

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has additional requirements all graduate students must fulfill to graduate or to continue receiving funding.

A summary of the timeline of events and deadlines can be found in the Schedule For Completing Requirements For Ph.D. In Biology.
OEB Graduate Program Schedule

In this page you will also find information on the following topics:


Prescription Courses

These courses are personalized to ensure that we all have a strong, well-rounded academic background. In recent years, the procedure by which students are assigned these courses has changed. Upon your arrival, expect to receive a tentative list of courses which have been determined by the Prescription Committee.

Each student should confer with his/her advisor to

  1. determine if there are any courses on the tentative list which may not be necessary and
  2. prepare a tentative course of study beyond the required prescription courses.

If all is in agreement with the list you receive, it is not necessary to meet with the Prescription committee. However, if you would like to petition for a change, you will meet with the committee to make your request. Based on your prior training, an appropriate course of study will then be decided.

The Committee will require you to meet the content of the following Harvard courses before your Qualifying Examination:

  • Mathematics - Beyond Math 1a, 1b (beyond one year of calculus)
  • Chemistry - Through Biological Sciences 11 (Biochemistry)
  • Statistics - One 100 level 1/2 course
  • Cell Biology - One 100 level course
  • 'Kingdom' course - A course that deals with the systematics, structure, function and ecology of at least one major group of animals or plants.
  • Genetics - One 100 level course

Graduate student comments


Qualifying Examination:

This is an oral examination which should be taken before the end of the second year of graduate study or prior to the completion of sixteen half-courses. Prescriptions must be satisfied prior to the examination, i.e. course completed with a grade of B- or better. Exceptions may be made by petition to the Graduate Committee.

The Qualifying Examination Committee will consist of the student's advisor acting as Chairman, plus at least three additional individuals. At least two of the additional members must be members of the OEB faculty. The overall composition of the Examination Committee must be approved by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee before a student submits the Qualifying Exam notice to the Graduate Office.

The date, topics, and proposed composition of the examination committee will be sent to all OEB faculty members prior to final approval by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee. Once approved by the Chairman, a Qualifying Examination Notice will be sent to all OEB faculty members

During the exam you will be tested on three broad topics pertinent to, but not restricted to, the specific topic of the proposed or ongoing dissertation studies. For each topic a syllabus outline for a course covering the topic should be prepared. This will serve as a guide for the Committee members to begin asking questions. In addition, you will be expected to give an oral presentation your written thesis research proposal to the Qualifying Exam Committee. The format of the written and oral thesis proposals is left up to the discretion of the advisor so make sure to discuss it before you begin working on it. The same applies for the syllabus outlines. Exams typically last 2-3 hours, including several rounds of questions from each committee member.

After the exam, students who passed the Qualifying Examination shall be promptly notified and approved for continuation of dissertation studies and advancement to Doctoral Candidacy. At least one term should ordinarily elapse between the qualifying exam and when the Thesis Examination can be held.

If the Qualifying Examination reveals serious deficiencies, the committee may require: (1) that the student be reexamined at a later date, or (2) that the student not be admitted to candidacy for the doctoral degree. In the latter case, the student subsequently will be orally examined by one or more faculty members designated by the committee and a judgment rendered.

If the committee finds the student lacking the necessary qualifications to continue the Ph.D. degree, it will recommend that further candidacy be terminated not later than the end of the ongoing academic year. The recommendation to terminate must be reviewed and approved by the Graduate Committee and by all OEB faculty members. The student, together with the advisor, may appeal any such decision by submitting to the Graduate Committee written arguments for a reversal of the decision to terminate. Under such circumstances, the case will be further reviewed by the Graduate Committee as well as by the Department and a final decision rendered.


  1. By end of Fall semester exam period of your second year:
    • Send three topics of interest plus a proposed Qualifying Exam Committee to the Graduate Committee.
  2. One month before the Qualifying Examination:
    • Send a formal note to the Graduate Committee Chairman and to the OEB Departmental Office with the time and location of your exam.
  3. Two weeks before the Qualifying Examination:
    • Send your thesis research proposal and syllabus outlines for the courses you propose for each of your exam topics.
  4. The Week before the Qualifying Examination:
    • Pick up the blue folder from Chris Preheim. This contains the OEB paperwork for the exam session.
  5. On the day of the Qualifying Examination bring:
    • Research proposal Presentation
    • Blue folder
    • Copies of your thesis research proposal
    • Copies of your course syllabi
  6. After the Qualifying Examination:
    • Return signed Blue folder to Chris Preheim ·

Graduate student comments about the Qualifying Exam


Teaching Requirement

The department has a two semester teaching requirement for completion of the degree. Most will fulfill this requirement in Year 2 and Year 4, since part of your annual stipend in those years is tied to this teaching service. Teaching in years 1 is not allowed and in year 3 will only be allowed with the approval of the Graduate Committee. After year 4 everyone is required to teach each semester unless they have an external funding source.


Thesis Conferences

In the Thesis Conference, students have a relatively early opportunity to review with their advisor and the Thesis Conference Committee the thesis project, its progress and future potential. The first Thesis Conference should be held no later than one year after the Qualifying Examination and at one year intervals thereafter. The student should present orally a brief account of any results obtained and plans for additional research. The Committee should indicate to the student whether it anticipates that the thesis will be acceptable. It should also suggest improvement where needed. The conference is not intended to be an oral "examination." At the time of the conference, a one-page abstract of proposed work and a thesis conference notification form should be submitted to the OEB Departmental Office. Failure to do so may affect your good standing in the department.

The Thesis Conference Committee will consist of the student's advisor, who will serve as chairman, and at least two other members. At least three of the members of the committee must be faculty members of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added after consultation with the advisor. The overall composition of the committee must be approved by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee. It is presumed that this committee will also constitute the Thesis Examination Committee.

Graduate student commentary

GSAS Satisfactory Progress Requirements

All students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences must be making satisfactory progress in order to be eligible for any type of financial aid. The following eight provisions are the general definition of satisfactory progress adopted by several departments. Specific department modifications follow the listing of the general guidelines.

1. During the first years of graduate study, any student who is permitted to register is considered to be making satisfactory progress.

2. The second year student must have completed prescribed courses, and must have passed general examinations or the departmental equivalent at the end of the second year. [Note: students can petition for later exams]

3. A prospective third year student must have achieved the minimum grade point average required by this Faculty. [See “Grade Requirements” below]

4. Fourth year students must participate in the G4 symposium in the spring of their fourth year. Participation in the symposium is necessary to access the final $3,000 of student research funds.

5. A prospective fifth year student must have obtained approval of a dissertation prospectus or its departmental equivalent.

6. A prospective sixth-year or more advanced student must submit evidence of significant thesis progress to a thesis advisor or committee each year. This evidence of progress may, at the department's discretion, take the form of a thesis chapter completed, manuscripts submitted for publication, abstracts of papers delivered at professional meetings, or other evidence as specified by the thesis director.

7. A student who has not met degree requirements or an established deadline may, with department endorsement, be granted an extension for up to one year and remain eligible for financial aid during this period. At the end of the grace period, the student must have rectified the deficiency and be in compliance with all other established criteria in order to be considered to be making satisfactory progress.

Ordinarily, only one such period of grace will be granted a student during graduate studies.

8. The calendar of requirements as noted above may be interrupted by a single year of department approved leave. In the special case of a student who wishes to obtain a professional degree, the approved leave period can be extended beyond a single year.

Grade Requirements: The minimum standard for satisfactory work in the Graduate School is a "B" average in each academic year. A grade of "C" or "INC" is offset by a grade of "A", and a "D" by two "As"; no account is taken of plus or minus. Grades of "UNS" or "E" or an unexcused "ABS" are unacceptable. A course in which a student receives an "E" or a permanent "INC" or "ABS" may be retaken for credit at a later time; both grades will appear on the student's transcript. In many departments, students are expected to maintain an average well above the GSAS minimum. For OEB prescribed courses, the minimum grade is a B- or better.


Getting to the P.h.D. Thesis Exam

All graduate students in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology come under the jurisdiction of the Departmental Committee on Graduate Students and Studies. The Chairman of the Committee is authorized to approve all examination committees appointed for doctoral candidates.

1. Application for the Ph.D. Degree

Applications are available in the Departmental Office. Candidates for the degree must file degree applications with the OEB Office by August 15 for award in November; by December 3 for award the following March; and by April 1 for award at Commencement. Check the Academic Calendar for updated deadline information. All applications must be approved by the Chairman of the Department.

2. Thesis Presentation

The student must present the subject matter of the thesis in a seminar before a group open to the general biological community within the University, and to which the members of the Thesis Examination Committee have been invited. This presentation shall take place sometime following the Thesis Conference and prior to the Thesis Examination. The Departmental Office should be notified of the Public Presentation one month prior to the date, so that a Thesis Seminar Notice can be sent to the OEB faculty members and fellow students. A copy of the posted notice of the seminar will become part of the student's record.

3. Thesis Summary

Each Ph.D. candidate will prepare a summary of the thesis, ordinarily limited to one page, single-spaced, and submit it to the Departmental Office two weeks prior to the date of the Thesis Examination. Copies of the Thesis Summary will be distributed to all OEB faculty members. This is the ABSTRACT of your thesis.

4. Thesis Examination

The thesis is written under the supervision of the student's research advisor and should conform to the standards outlined in the booklet, "The Form of the Doctoral Thesis," available in the Departmental Office.

The Thesis Examination Committee will consist of the student's advisor who will serve as chairman, and at least two other members suggested by the advisor. At least three members of the committee must be faculty of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Additional members affiliated with other departments or institutions may be added by the advisor. The overall composition of the committee must be approved by the Chairman of the Graduate Committee. The Thesis Examination Committee will, if possible, be the same as the Thesis Conference Committee.

The OEB Departmental Office and the Chairman of the Graduate Committee must be notified of the time and location of the Thesis Examination two weeks prior to the date desired. At the same time, the candidate will present to his/her Thesis Committee two copies of the thesis in final form (not yet bound). An additional thesis copy must be submitted to the Graduate Office two weeks prior to the Thesis Examination (this copy will be made available to OEB faculty). A copy of the Thesis Examination Notice and the Thesis Summary will be sent to all OEB Faculty members

The student should observe the final dates for holding the thesis examination indicated in the Academic Calendar sent to all students at the beginning of each term. It is suggested that the thesis examination be held at least one month prior to the date the thesis is due in the registrar's office, to allow time for revisions.

After examination, the committee will decide whether the candidate will pass, fail, or pass on the condition that specified changes be made to the thesis. The committee may delegate to its chairman the responsibility for seeing that such changes are made in a satisfactory manner before the award of the degree is recommended to the Department by the Committee on Graduate Students and Studies. The student's advisor should make such certification in writing to the Chairman of the Graduate Committee.

Only after the candidate has passed the examination and the thesis has been fully accepted should the thesis be permanently bound. It is considered entirely appropriate that the bound thesis include reprints of papers reporting results of the candidates thesis research. The thesis must be written in English.

The Ph.D. must be completed and approved within six years (twelve terms) of registration in the Department, in order for the student to remain in good standing. After year six, a student not considered in good standing may be required to reapply to the department in order to complete the degree requirements.

5. Filing the Thesis

Two copies of the thesis (one bound, one boxed), with the Thesis Acceptance Certificate, must be deposited at the Registrar's Office, 20 Garden Street. Each candidate must be registered in GSAS, paying at a minimum a charge equal to the Facilities Fee, at the time the thesis is filed. These dates may vary and should be checked in the GSAS Handbook available at registration each year. It is the student's responsibility to submit the thesis to the Registrar's Office in accordance with the desired graduation date deadline.


Graduate student comments


The Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology does not admit students whose sole purpose is to study for the master of arts degree. However, graduate students admitted to any PhD program at Harvard University may apply for the MA degree if they fulfill the following requirements:

1) Six graded half-courses in the Department (or approved by the Director of Graduate Studies), with no grades lower than B- and an overall grade average of B or better.

2) At least three of the six courses must be below the 200 level.

3) At least two of the six courses must be at the 200 level.

4) TIME and 300-level courses will not ordinarily be accepted toward the MA degree.

5) MA candidates must submit a written paper based on original research conducted under the guidance of a faculty member in the department.



OEB graduate students who finish early (year five) or before the end of year six, may be supported for up to one year beyond the Ph.D. degree in a lectureship position. THIS IS ONLY AVAILABLE IF THERE IS A POSITION OPEN. This is usually the case for an OEB course that does not have a TF.

The terms for lecturer appointment are:

(1) Recommendations for the lecturer appointment will result from the initiative of faculty and students. Faculty members who agree to accept specific degree candidates into instructional roles in their courses will submit a recommendation to the Chairman. The Chairman will review the recommendation, and may forward it, on behalf of the Department, to the Dean.

(2) The lecturer appointment will carry a non-renewable maximum term of one academic year. During this period, the teaching load would be part-time (e.g. 2/5 of time for Biological Sciences 51). The lecturer is expected to spend the remainder this time on related professional activities (such as a job search).

(3) Lecturer appointments will be established each September based on departmental lectureship needs. Lecturers will ordinarily have greater responsibility and correspondingly higher compensation than senior teaching fellows.



The relationship between you and your advisor is an extremely important one, and hopefully a pleasant and productive one as well. However, sometimes incompatibilities arise, be they professional, personal, or philosophical. If this is the case, you might give careful consideration to changing your advisor to someone who is more appropriate.

Remember that the official word, or one of them at least, states: Upon admission, students will be assigned a faculty member in the Department to serve as a thesis research advisor. Students are encouraged to consult freely with any staff member on matters pertaining to their programs and may change to another advisor at any time, subject only to the approval of the new advisor and notification to the departmental office.

Students must have an advisor at all times and it is the student's responsibility to ensure this. Any student who does not have an advisor at the beginning of a term must withdraw from the department at the end of that term if arrangements for a new advisor have not been made by that time."

From the onset, it is essential that every aspect of changing your advisor be done with professionalism. Whatever your reasons for changing advisors, a harmonious relationship with all parties involved will lead to a more productive and pleasant graduate career.

It is very important to keep in mind the three principle parties involved (you, your present advisor, and your potential new advisor) and their concerns and perspectives in that situation. You should, obviously, be aware of what your own concerns are.

Some concerns of your present advisor are: what is best for you; reasons for wanting to change advisors; reasons for your choice of a new advisor; structure and composition of her/his laboratory; what your new advisor thinks.

Similarly, some concerns of your potential new advisor are: what is best for you; reasons for leaving your present advisor; reasons for your choice of her/him as your new advisor; structure and composition of her/his laboratory; what your old advisor thinks.

Although it is impossible to offer comprehensive suggestions that account for every specific case, here are some recommended steps in facilitating the process of changing advisors: (1) Think about it carefully. Why is your present situation unsatisfactory? What can be done to make the situation better? (2) Talk to people and get advice. Find out how others view the situation. If not your present advisor, who do others think would be appropriate? What do other people think of those whom you are considering as an advisor? (3) Think about it some more. Again, why do you want to change your advisor? Is changing your advisor the best way to go? (4) Talk to your current advisor. Explain why your present situation is less than satisfactory, and openly discuss your options. (5) Talk to your prospective new advisor. Discuss with her/him honestly about your situation. Mention why you wish to change your advisor, who you are considering as a potential new advisor, and why you chose him/her. Be sure your new advisor is truly ready to take you on.

How to Change Advisors: A student may request to change research advisor(s), by filling out a change of advisor form available in the Departmental Office. The student is encouraged to consult freely with any staff member on matters pertaining to the research program and may change advisors at any time subject to the approval of the new advisor and the Chairman of the Graduate Committee on Students and Studies.

Every student must have an advisor who is a faculty member in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at all times. Failure to make arrangements for an advisor may result in dismissal from the department.

Graduate student commentary



The members of the Graduate Committee: Jonathan Losos (Chairperson 2010--), Stacey Combes, Cassandra Extavour, Michael Desai, Hopi Hoekstra

This committee is responsible for approving

Schedule For Completing Requirements For Ph.D. In Biology

OEB Graduate Program Schedule

OEB Graduate Program Schedule PDF