PhD Thesis

Thesis Proposal

Within 3-4 months of completion of the Research Exam, the student should submit to the Committee on Academic Studies (CAS) a Thesis Proposal, along with the name of the Thesis Supervisor and a list of possible Thesis Advisory Committee members. The PhD Thesis Supervisor can be different from the Research Project advisor. It is desirable, but not required, that the Thesis topic be in an area different from that pursued for the Research Project.

The Thesis Proposal should describe the field of research and propose in broad terms specific projects that might be included as part of the thesis. The typical length of the Thesis Proposal is about 2-3 pages, excluding figures and references.  In addition to naming the thesis supervisor, the student should propose up to 5 names of possible Advisory Committee members.

Thesis Advisory Committee

The Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC) is appointed by the CAS and is tasked with monitoring the student's progress towards the completion of the thesis. The TAC includes members with interests and knowledge broadly related to the thesis research. Normally, at least two members belong to the faculty, though this rule can be relaxed when needed. The role of the TAC is to provide feedback to the student and supervisor on the research, and to provide advice to the CAS on the student's progress towards their PhD. The Thesis Supervisor is automatically a member of the TAC. The CAS will designate a different member as chair of the TAC.

The student and the TAC should meet at least once per semester. For this purpose, a year is divided into two semesters, one from August-January and the other from February-July. It is the student's responsibility to arrange twice-yearly TAC meetings. The first TAC meeting should be no later than 6 months after the student has completed the Research Exam. Before each TAC meeting, the student should forward to TAC members the instructions outlined in the bullets below.

  • Prior to the first TAC meeting, the student should give copies of the Thesis Proposal to members of the TAC. At the meeting, the student should make a presentation describing the research field, a draft of the intellectual questions to be addressed in the thesis, and a proposed list of projects likely to be completed.  This initial meeting might extend for up to 2 hours and will conclude with a specific plan of attack for starting the research.
  • In advance of each subsequent TAC meeting, the student should provide committee members with a brief summary of current progress and problems. This document should include basic information such as when the student expects to graduate, how many years it has been since the student joined the graduate program, papers published or submitted, papers nearing completion, etc. Also, it is the responsibility of the student to bring the necessary forms to the meeting.
  • Subsequent TAC meetings should normally take no longer than 1 hour, except in those cases where the student faces problems and needs detailed advice. The student's presentation at these meetings should focus on work accomplished since the previous meeting and on immediate plans for the future. As part of the presentation, the student should provide a time line that includes a list of tasks to be completed and an estimate of when each task is expected to be completed. The time line should extend up to the time of graduation.
  • During and following the student's presentation, TAC members are expected to participate actively and to provide constructive advice and suggestions on the thesis research. Following this, the committee and the supervisor meet for a few minutes in the absence of the student. The TAC chair then drafts the TAC Report in consultation with the other members. TAC Reports need to be reasonably detailed, paying particular attention to problem areas. These reports are the primary source of information to the CAS for monitoring the academic progress of individual students.
  • After the TAC meeting, the chair meets alone with the student to discuss the TAC Report and the recommendations. They also discuss issues related to professional development, research progress, and any problems that the student is unable to discuss with their adviser.
  • The student or chair then forwards to the department office the TAC Report, along with the written summary that the student had prepared ahead of the TAC meeting.

Thesis Completion

It is desirable that the student complete the thesis and other degree requirements by the end of five years. Information on due dates for degree applications and submission of theses may be obtained from the appropiate GSAS websites. The final manuscript should conform to the requirements described in the booklet, The Form of the Doctoral Thesis.

Before the defense, the student is required to give a Public Lecture on the thesis topic. This lecture is considered to be part of the examination process.

Final Oral Exam

At the last TAC meeting prior to thesis defense, the student and the committee members should discuss possible members of the Final Oral Exam Committee, including at least one external examiner, and should forward these suggestions to the CAS. The CAS then appoints the committee, which will consist of one external examiner (department practice) and three or four local examiners, of whom at least two are faculty members (by university rules) and one is the Thesis Supervisor. The CAS will appoint one of the members other than the supervisor or the external examiner as the chair. Typically, the chair of the TAC will be appointed as chair of the Final Oral Exam Committee. 

The Final Oral Examination will be confined to the thesis research and topics bearing directly on it. The typical duration is two hours.

Thesis submission

PhD candidates must provide a copy of their dissertation to their examiners at least two weeks prior to the defense date.  They are also required to submit their thesis into DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard) once completed.

Policy and detailed instructions