PhD Course Requirements
[Part of the Policies of the CHD, August 2019 with later revisions; see also area-specific guidelines for Applied Math, Applied Physics, Bioengineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Environmental Science & Engineering, and Materials Science & Mechanical Engineering]
The Committee on Higher Degrees (CHD) approves each graduate student’s program plan (and any revisions to it), and monitors progress towards attainment of the degree. It is the student’s obligation to keep the CHD apprised of any departures from an approved course selection plan in timely fashion.
Note that a Ph.D. student’s program plan must always comply with the requirements outlined here, in addition to complying with any area-specific requirements. Area-specific Ph.D. requirements (course expectations, oral qualifying exam, dissertation, final oral exam) are also described on the Graduate Program - Degree Requirements pages of each area.
GSAS requires that all Ph.D. students complete at least 16, four-unit courses or their equivalent prior to graduation. SEAS requires that 10 of the 16 be letter-graded courses, at 100-level or higher, which together comprise the student’s Ph.D. Program Plan; courses at lower than 100-level, including all General Education courses, may not be included. The remaining 6 courses beyond the SEAS 10-course requirement may include 300-level research courses and/or other undergraduate- or graduate-level coursework.
All SEAS Ph.D. Program Plans of 10 letter-graded, four-unit courses must be approved by the CHD and satisfy the following:
- No course with a grade lower than B- may be included in the Ph.D. Program Plan. Also note the minimum average grade of B or better as described in the “GPA Expectations” section.
- At least 5 of the 10 letter-graded courses must be 200-level SEAS technical courses (or 200-level FAS technical courses taught by SEAS ladder faculty—SEAS assistant, associate, or full professor), and excluding courses numbered 294/297/298/299 (with any appended letters, e.g., "299r"). Any remaining courses are normally taken from SEAS, FAS, other Harvard schools, or MIT.
- a) Note that Physics 223 counts as a 200-level SEAS technical course for students in Applied Physics and in Engineering Sciences.
- b) For academic years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024, Bioengineering students may include a non-SEAS graduate-level technical class in place of one of the 5 such SEAS courses that are normally expected.
- At least 8 of the 10 letter-graded courses must be “disciplinary” courses.
- a) Up to 1 disciplinary course may be a 100-level SEAS/FAS course.
- At most 2 of the 10 letter-graded courses may be “breadth” courses.
- a) Up to 1 breadth course may be a 100-level SEAS/FAS course.
- b) Technical courses on topics adjacent and complementary to the student’s research topic may be breadth courses.
- c) Nontechnical courses, including innovation or communication courses, and courses from other Harvard schools outside SEAS/FAS normally may only be included in the breadth category.
- A maximum of two 294/297/298/299r courses in total may be included in a Ph.D. Program Plan. 294/297/298/299r courses are subject to the following additional limitations by degree area:
- a) Applied Math: 294/297/298/299r courses may only appear in the breadth category.
- b) Applied Physics: 294/297/298/299r courses may only appear in the breadth category. If two 299r’s are taken, they must be taken with two different faculty.
- c) Computer Science: 294/297/298 courses may only appear in the breadth category. One 299r course is allowed in the disciplinary category. If two 299r’s are taken, they can be with the same faculty but the topics must be sufficiently different.
- d) Engineering Sciences (Environmental Science and Engineering track only): 294/297/298/299r courses may only appear in the breadth category. For students who started the program in 2023 or earlier, one 299r course is allowed in the disciplinary category.
- e) Engineering Sciences (all tracks except Environmental Science and Engineering track): 294/297/298/299r courses may only appear in the breadth category. If two 299r’s are taken, they must be taken with two different faculty.
- f) All degree areas: for students who entered the SEAS Ph.D. program prior to 2015, one disciplinary 299r course is allowed.
- Certain courses and enrollments have specific restrictions and are not valid to include on a Ph.D. Program Plan:
- a) Neither SEAS/FAS 300-level courses nor courses taken under the auspices of the Harvard Extension School may be included on a Ph.D. Program Plan.
- b) The ungraded class ES 399-TIME (which replaces TIME-T/-R/-C) does not count toward GSAS or SEAS requirements and may not appear on a Program Plan. Enrollment in ES 399-TIME is limited to two sets of SEAS students:
- those who are Teaching Fellows, for at most 4 units per .25 FTE of TF appointment;
- international students who are taking the Derek Bok Center's English, Culture, and Communicating Science seminar in order to meet the GSAS English Language Proficiency requirement, for at most 4 units.
Note: 2-unit courses such as AP 299qr count as "half of a course" in the context of these requirements.
Exceptions to these requirements are considered by petition to the CHD via the PhD Program Plan form, which must include a rationale for the exception. Further requirements for including prior graduate-level coursework from Harvard or elsewhere, or courses taken through cross-registration, on the Ph.D. Program Plan are given below.
- While in a Ph.D. program at SEAS, a student can petition the CHD for a course from another university, such as MIT, to be included in the student’s Program Plan in lieu of a Harvard course.
- a) The student must provide justification why the other institution's course is necessary (e.g., SEAS does not offer the topic or it has not been offered in recent years, etc.).
- b) Only G-level (graduate) MIT courses are acceptable.
- c) The student should attach the course syllabus and catalog description when submitting the Program Plan.
- d) Courses taken at MIT do not count as 200-level SEAS technical courses.
- If a student has completed graduate-level coursework while in a Harvard degree program prior to enrolling as a SEAS Ph.D. student, and the course credit was not applied towards an undergraduate degree, ordinarily all 200-level SEAS courses and 200-level FAS courses taught by SEAS ladder faculty can be included in the Ph.D. Program Plan subject to the above general requirements. (Note that GSAS policy may be more restrictive, e.g., that the student must have been enrolled specifically in a Harvard graduate program at the time). Other graduate-level letter-graded courses will be considered by the CHD.
- a) Up to two 200-level SEAS courses, including 200-level FAS courses taught by SEAS ladder faculty, taken as a GSAS Special Student prior to enrolling as a SEAS Ph.D. student can be included in the Ph.D. Program Plan subject to the above general requirements.
- b) SEAS/FAS 100-level courses taken prior to enrolling as a SEAS Ph.D. student cannot be included in the Ph.D. Program Plan.
- c) G-level MIT courses taken via cross-registration while enrolled as a Harvard masters student will be considered by the CHD.
- If a student has completed graduate-level coursework at another university prior to enrolling as a SEAS Ph.D. student, the student may petition the CHD to allow inclusion of the courses in the student’s Program Plan. All transfer credit must also be approved by both the CHD and the FAS Registrar’s Office.
- a) Normally a maximum of 3 Harvard-equivalent courses will be considered by the CHD. SEAS and FAS 200-level technical courses taken via cross registration while in an MIT graduate program do not count against the 3-course limit.
- b) If the coursework was performed while a candidate for an undergraduate degree, the student must unequivocally demonstrate that the course credit was applied solely to a concurrent graduate degree.
- c) Petitions to the CHD need to demonstrate that the courses in question are comparable to SEAS graduate courses, typically by submission of the course syllabus, requirements, and documentation of grade obtained. The student should indicate whether each course fits within the 8-course disciplinary category or the 2-course breadth category.
- d) Typically only 1 of the transferred courses can count as part of the five 200-level SEAS technical courses.
- e) Transfer credit must be petitioned for before or upon first submission of the final Ph.D. Program Plan in G2 year. Students are encouraged to petition for transfer credit on their prospective Program Plan in G1 year. Coursework cannot be older than four years at the time the student submits the petition to the CHD.
- f) Grades in courses taken previously elsewhere will not be factored into the Harvard GPA.
In general, students must achieve at least a "B" average grade in the ten courses comprising the Ph.D. Program Plan. At the end of any term, a student who has failed to maintain a B average or has received any unsatisfactory grade may be required to withdraw from the program. Students who have satisfied the requirements for the S.M. degree en route may still receive that degree.
A Ph.D. candidate whose GPA at the end of the first semester is between 2.50 and 3.00 may be warned that continuation as a Ph.D. candidate beyond the second semester is contingent upon achieving a cumulative 3.00 ("B") or better average grade at the end of the second semester. Failure to meet this standard normally will result in the student being expected to withdraw from the program following the third semester, receiving the S.M. degree if its requirements have been met. The student may petition for reinstatement to candidacy for the Ph.D. at the end of the third semester; this petition will be granted only if there is a reasonable expectation that the qualifying examination can be completed on schedule during the fourth semester.
A Ph.D. candidate whose GPA at the end of the first semester is less than 2.50 but who could achieve a cumulative 3.00 GPA or better at the end of the second semester normally will be expected to withdraw after the second or third semester, receiving the S.M. degree if its requirements have been met. Continuation for a third and final semester is contingent upon a marked improvement in performance sufficient to provide reasonable assurance that the requirements for the S.M. degree will be completed at the end of the third semester.
A Ph.D. candidate who could not achieve a cumulative 3.00 GPA or better at the end of the second semester normally will be required to withdraw at the end of the first semester, thus terminating degree candidacy.
Area Course Requirements, Guidelines, and Model Programs
In addition to the above requirements, which apply to all SEAS Ph.D. students, each area (Applied Mathematics, Applied Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering Sciences) may have area-specific requirements or guidelines, and some areas have provided model programs with suggestions of appropriate courses. A Ph.D. student’s Program Plan must always comply with the requirements outlined in the “General Requirements” section above, in addition to complying with any area-specific requirements.
These programs below form a starting point for a discussion with the faculty about areas of interest. Students should work in close consultation with their advisers to develop an appropriate program plan. Courses provide the background knowledge that is often needed to successfully complete research and allow students to learn more broadly about a field or related fields in a structured fashion.