PhD Qualifying Exam: by end of G2 year

[Part of the Policies of the CHD, last updated fall 2021; see also area-specific exam guidelines for Applied Math, Applied Physics, Bioengineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Environmental Science & Engineering, and Materials Science & Mechanical Engineering]

The qualifying examination should be taken no later than the end of May of the fourth semester (or the end of the Reading Period if the fourth semester is in the fall).  An extension of this deadline will be granted only if the chair of the qualifying committee makes a specific request to the CHD via the “Request to Delay the Qualifying Exam" form.  If a student is transferring between advisors and does not have a chair of their qualifying committee, the student can make the extension request to the DGS. A recommendation that the examination be held within a few weeks after that deadline as a matter of mutual convenience, or for good and sufficient reasons during the period June through September following the second year of graduate study, will normally be routinely approved, provided the student has a cumulative average grade better than 3.00 (“B”). Marginal students, or postponement beyond the end of September in the fifth semester, will receive careful scrutiny as to the reasons behind the recommendation.

If a student has not received approval for an extension and does not complete the qualifying examination by the deadline of end of May of the fourth semester (or the end of the Reading Period if the fourth semester is in the fall), SEAS may put the student in unsatisfactory (UNSAT) progress status with GSAS. At that time the CHD will determine whether the student should lose their monthly research funding support, and whether tuition for the following semester is not to be paid, potentially blocking registration for the following semester.

Exam Committee and Scheduling

The qualifying committee is comprised of four committee members: the research advisor, the research advisor’s nominee, the student’s nominee, and the Dean’s Nominee (assigned by the CHD).  The members of the qualifying committee should be Harvard faculty members, but on occasion MIT faculty members or other technical professionals of comparable stature may serve in this capacity with the approval of the CHD.  The qualifying committee so constituted should include at least two SEAS faculty members, at least one of whom should be a senior faculty member (i.e., a full professor).  Usually, the research advisor serves as chair of the qualifying committee; but if the research advisor is not a Harvard faculty member, the research advisor will serve as co-chair with a SEAS faculty member.  Area-specific exam guidelines may specify that the Dean's Nominee is to chair the exam.

[Ed. note: students, be sure toask your hoped-for advisor's and student's nominees whether they're willing to serve on your qualifying committee before listing them on your Program Plan.]

Approval of the final program plan and the identification of the Dean’s nominee by the CHD will permit the student to schedule the qualifying examination.  Once the student has agreed upon a time for the examination with all members of the qualifying committee, the student is responsible for contacting the Office of Academic Programs ( at least two weeks in advance in order to prepare the exam paperwork, and, if needed, to schedule a room. 

The Qualifying Exam is a major milestone en route to the PhD and an important opportunity for the student to engage with their faculty committee and receive formal feedback on their progress. As such, SEAS expects the student and committee to meet together in person for the exam. If after attempting to schedule a time for the full committee to meet together in person it appears that no such time can be found, the student should consult with the Office of Academic Programs about alternatives, possibly including that one or more committee members attend remotely. In all cases the student should take the exam in a classroom or seminar room that includes a blackboard or whiteboard that they can use while answering questions, with sufficient videoconferencing for any remote-attending committee member to view it clearly.

Specifics of the Exam

The qualifying examination has the dual purpose of verifying the adequacy of the student's preparation for undertaking research in his/her chosen field, and of assessing his/her ability to synthesize the technical knowledge already acquired.  The purpose of the examination is not to reassess the student's performance in formal courses; however, evaluation of the student's general knowledge in the major field is appropriate.  The basic judgment to be made is whether the student has demonstrated sufficient mastery of the intellectual skills necessary to conduct research so that a confident prediction can be made that an acceptable doctoral dissertation will be forthcoming in timely fashion.  These skills include the ability to pull together scientific ideas, to formulate technical questions, to recognize answers thereto and to make reasonable judgments on how to seek answers to such questions.

The format of the qualifying examination ordinarily is a two-hour oral examination devoted to the presentation and discussion of one or more potential dissertation topics and to more general questions.  The intent is to test the student's comprehension of his/her chosen research field and to probe the limits of the student's technical knowledge in related areas.  Various groups within SEAS have different customs with regard to the detailed nature of the qualifying examination.  For area-specific exam guidelines, see the Graduate Program Degree Requirements page in each academic area. One role of the Dean's nominee is to assure that comparable standards are applied throughout SEAS.  The qualifying committee should agree among themselves as to what is expected of the student, who should reach out to the committee members in advance of the examination regarding the committee’s expectations.

The qualifying committee may pass or fail the student, or may judge the performance to be inconclusive.  Within its discretion, the committee may stipulate further requirements, such as additional course work, a written examination or presentation of a research proposal, as conditions that must be satisfied.  The research committee (see below) will determine whether these conditions have been met, and so report to the CHD.  Failure means that the student may not re-register, thus terminating degree candidacy.  In the case of an inconclusive performance, after consultation with his/her potential research advisor, the student may schedule a second examination, which must be conclusive. The qualifying committee should explain to the student and report to the CHD its reasons for judging the performance to be inadequate and for granting a second examination.

Students who change degree areas

Students who chose to switch degree areas within SEAS after completing their qualifying exam are ordinarily required to take a qualifying exam in the new area (for example, within Engineering Sciences from Bioengineering to Electrical Engineering or between degrees such as from Engineering Sciences to Applied Physics).  The qualifying exam committee for this exam should appropriately reflect the new degree path. Students must first seek approval of the Director of Graduate Studies and the CHD in the area they wish to transfer and must submit a final program plan for the new degree area to be reviewed and approved by the CHD.