Our faculty are dedicated to teaching graduate students to perform original and creative research. To fulfill this goal, graduate students participate in three student/faculty meetings over the course of their career. Each meeting serves a different purpose within the overall objectives to: 

  • Assess the expertise of a student in performing independent research (2nd year Ph.D. Qualifying Exam);
  • Monitor a student’s research progress and guide the student to develop an original research program (3rd year Proposal / Research Review Meeting); and
  • Offer advice for the professional development of the graduate student (4th year Advising Meeting).

G2 Ph.D. Qualifying Examination

All students must pass a Ph.D. Qualifying Examination to: assess the (i) early research progress of the Ph.D. candidate and (ii) fundamental knowledge underpinning the student’s Ph.D. research project.

The director of graduate studies (DGS) assigns each student a Ph.D. Qualifying Committee by the end of the G1 year. Committees consist of four CCB faculty members, including the student’s research advisor, with one member designated as Chair. Each committee assesses four to six students. If a research project involves an advisor (primary or collaborative) external to CCB, s/he may attend as a 5th member. The Chair administers the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination and schedules the exam meeting. Meetings for all G2 students are held in April or early May of the G2 year and a given committee administers exams for the four to six students in either one or two consecutive days. Meetings 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.


The examination includes both written and oral components (Formatted: Font: 12 pt)

  • Written Examination: no more than 5 single-spaced pages (or 10 double-spaced pages) in a communication-style format; figures embedded in the document are included in the five-page limit; references are not included in the 5-page limit; report key results of accomplished research and include a brief discussion of future plans (must be submitted by email to the chair of the Qualifying Committee at least 7 days prior to the oral examination)
  • Oral Examination: consists of a 20-minute PowerPoint or blackboard presentation (as decided by the student), followed by 30 minutes of Questions and Answers from 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 30 minute Q&A session, queries from committee members span specific aspects of the research project to explore the fundamental knowledge underpinning the research project. Questions on the latter focus on material typically covered in an undergraduate chemistry curriculum that relates to the broadly defined area of the research project
  • Pass: the student becomes a candidate for a Ph.D.; a thesis committee forms by the end of the term (see below)
  • Conditional Pass: the committee re-examines the student before the end of the fall term of the G3 year. The committee decides the re-examination format, which may involve a written report to address specific concerns of the committee or re-assembled committee
  • Fail: the student withdraws from the program at the end of the term, with the opportunity to receive an A.M. degree, provided s/he meets other requirements outlined in the GSAS Policies (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 June 15th of the term  in which they pass the PhD Qualifying Examination. 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; figures embedded in the document are included in the five-page limit; references are not included in the five-page limit. 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 Policies.

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.




At the end of their first year, students are expected to form, in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, their Graduate Advising Committee (GAC). 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.

The GAC has 3 main objectives:

  • To promote the timely completion of the degree requirements
  • To foster non-advisor faculty-student interactions.
  • To provide career counseling.

While it is generally assumed that the Faculty members serving on the GAC will transition to the Dissertation Defense Committee, this is not mandatory. Students should keep in mind that their GAC members will be more familiar with them and their research.

Forming the GAC

The GAC consists of the student's advisor and two other faculty members, one of whom must be a CCB faculty member. Two of your three GAC members must be from Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences (one of which must be from CCB specifically). All GAC members (including the advisor) will be present for all GAC meetings. The process for constituting the GAC begins in the G2 year and differs by area of concentration, as follows:

Physical, Inorganic, and Chemical Physics students are responsible for coordinating their Committee membership. Please email Kathy Oakley with your GAC composition no later than Monday, November 13, 2018.

Organic and Chemical Biology students must email Kathy Oakley a list of at least four suggested faculty members (excluding your advisor who is automatically on your committee), in order of preference, no later than Monday, November 13, 2018. The Department Office will determine the composition of your committee and then notify you, as well as your committee members, via email.

Progress Report

Students must submit a 2-page outline of their research progress and future plans to their GAC at least 7 days prior to each GAC meeting.


The GAC will judge all GAC meetings on a pass/fail basis. In the event of a fail grade, the committee will set goals, with a timeline for completion, to be met by the student. An additional follow-up meeting may be requested by the committee before the next regularly scheduled GAC meeting (for example in 6 months) to assess the student’s progress toward their goals.

At the conclusion of the GAC meeting, the committee members will sign the GAC Meeting Confirmation Form, which details the progress of the student. The signed form should be returned to Kathy Oakley in the Department office.

GAC Meeting Deadlines by Year

  • G2 Year: Students shall convene their first GAC meeting on or before February 1st of their G2 year. To ensure that the scheduling is completed in a timely manner, the date of the GAC must be confirmed with the relevant faculty by December 15th. Students are responsible for all meeting preparation, including securing a meeting location. Kathy Oakley will schedule the GAC meeting if no date is set by the December 15th deadline.
  • G3 AND G4 Years: Students shall schedule the meeting date by March 1st and convene their GAC by June 30th of their G3 and G4 years. The student is responsible for all meeting preparation including securing a meeting location. Kathy Oakley will schedule the GAC meeting if no date is set by the March 1st deadline. (NOTE: Students are expected to present and defend an independent research proposal anytime between the first semester of their 2nd year up to the end of their 4th year (June 30th). Any one of the G2, G3, or G4 GAC committee meetings can serve as the independent research proposal meeting.)
  • G5 Year: This meeting is optional. Students may arrange a meeting with their GAC in the G5 year if they feel one is necessary.
  • G6+ Year: Students must meet with their GAC by December 31st of their G6 year and then every year beyond the G6 year. A written report, signed by the Advisor and GAC, should be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies detailing specific goals, a timeline for achieving those goals, and a projected defense date. This report should be submitted by January 4th.

Independent Research Proposal

Students present and defend an independent research proposal between the first semester of their 2nd year and the end of their 4th year (June 30th). Any 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 Ph.D. research and should consult with their advisor to develop the topic. Students and their advisors decide when to present the independent proposal.

Completing an independent research proposal expands a student's base scientific knowledge and provides a formal exercise in identifying research projects in interesting and promising areas of research. The objectives of the independent research proposal program are to provide students the opportunity to:

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

Oral Exam

The oral exam typically takes 30 to 60 minutes. 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.

Written Proposal

Students submit a five-page independent research proposal to their GAC seven days in advance of the oral presentation. Please use the guidelines specific to your area of research:

Physical Chemistry & Chemical Physics

  • 5 pages maximum, single-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins.

Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry & Chemical Biology

  • Topic: Candidates select a topic after direct consultation with, and with the approval of, his/her Advisor; proposals must contain ideas that originate with the Candidate
  • Required Format: standard letter-sized paper (8.5 x 11"); single-spaced, 12-point font; 1-inch margins; figures embedded in the document are included in the five-page limit.


  • Overview (1 page)
  • Abstract (0.5 page)
  • First paragraph (0.5 page): Identify the field of the proposal topic and briefly discuss any relationship between the proposal topic and the student's thesis research; identify the critical question(s) that are addressed and why these are important; identify those features of the proposal that are original
  • Proposal (maximum of 5 pages, including figures, excluding overview page and references): Specific aim(s) (0.5 pages); Background and significance (1 - 2 pages); Research design and methods; Impact statement (2 - 3 sentences); References (not included in page limit)

Possible Outcomes

GAC members will be given a GAC Confirmation Form and will indicate satisfactory (Pass) or unsatisfactory (Fail) progress. This grading sheet becomes part of the student's academic record.

Pass: The student continues in the program towards the Ph.D.

Fail: The student will be required to submit a revised written proposal for reevaluation. In addition, the GAC will establish goals, with a timeline for completion, to be met by the student and may schedule an additional meeting before the next annual GAC meeting to assess the student's progress. Students receiving a grade of Fail on the oral portion of the exam may, in some cases, be required to improve their oral presentation skills through the Bok Center for Teaching and/or by giving presentations within the department.

GAC Confirmation Form