Research Project

Before beginning work on a PhD thesis, each student must complete an initial Research Project. The purpose of this project is to introduce students to the methods of research and to ensure that they can organize material and present it cogently in both oral and written form. The topic may be in the area of intended thesis work, although research in another area is encouraged. No research project carried out before the student has registered for graduate study at Harvard will be accepted.

Research Advisor

Beginning in January of your first year, each first-year graduate student should interview faculty members and Lecturers and identify a Research Advisor for your research exam project. Your Research Advisor is usually different from the Academic Advisor initially assigned to you by the DGS but it doesn't have to be. Students pick their Research Advisors by talking to faculty and research staff and through informal contact at CfA colloquiums and other forums.  If your faculty member of interest has a group meeting, it might be useful to visit one of their meetings.  Once you have selected a Research Advisor, please inform the Astronomy office of your choice.

Interim Advisor

At the conclusion of each student's research exam, they will be asked to name an Interim Advisor for the period between the conclusion of the research exam and submission of their thesis proposal.  This faculty member or SAO lecturer could be in addition to their academic and research advisors, and his or her role would be to serve as mentor and confidant to the student in the interim until he or she has selected a permanent Thesis Advisor.   This advisor will play a critical role in  monitoring the bridge between the conclusion of their academic studies and start of their research career and guiding their choice of PhD research.  

Research Project Proposal

Each student, in consultation with their Research Advisor, should select a field of research for the Research Project, read relevant background material, and ultimately by May 1st of your first year, submit a Research Proposal to the Committee on Academic Studies (CAS) by way of Robb Scholten.  The proposal should be a two to three page description of the intended research, with relevant references to the literature. It does not require prior completion of any phase of the work.  Students are encouraged to recommend names of 3-4 faculty or lecturers who would constitute your exam committee. 

Research Exam Committee (REC)

Either at the top or the bottom of the Research Project Proposal, the student should suggest three or four possible members of the Research Exam Committee (REC) who are either experts in the particular area of research or are broadly knowledgeable. It is not necessary to contact potential committee members. Note that postdocs are not usually appointed to the REC. Based on the suggested names, the CAS will appoint the REC, which will consist of the advisor and two or three other members. The CAS will also appoint one of the members other than the advisor as the chair of the REC.

Work on the Research Project

Students are encouraged to begin work on their Research Project as soon as they have submitted their Research Project Proposal. The summer following the first academic year is an especially good time to make substantial progress on the project. Students should aim to finish the bulk of the research by the end of the fall term of their second year or early the following term. A student may work as a member of a larger research group, but there should be a clearly identifiable sub-project for which the student has primary responsibility.

Research Project Report

Before the start of the fall semester of the third year, the student should complete a Research Project Report describing the results of the research project. The report need not describe a completed research project, but can be a description of work accomplished. Its total length should not normally exceed about 30 pages. Typical papers in the ApJ, AJ, MNRAS, PASP and other journals can serve as guides to style. The report should be written entirely by the student. The advisor should ensure that the report meets the appropriate standards, but should not actively engage in writing any part of it. Once the Research Project Report has been completed, it is the responsibility of the student to give copies to members of the Exam Committee and to schedule the Research Exam. The student should also forward to committee members the Research Exam instructions given in the next two paragraphs.

Research Exam

REC members should normally be given the Research Project Report about two weeks ahead of the Research Exam. One week ahead is the absolute minimum. Anything less needs to be approved by the chair of the REC. In the days leading up to the exam, members of the Exam Committee should read and evaluate the written report. The Research Exam itself will consist of a presentation by the student describing the completed work, followed by an oral examination. The latter will cover the primary research topic as well as its broader context within astrophysics. The Research Exam typically lasts no longer than two hours. For the presentation, the student should plan for about thirty "uninterrupted" minutes. In practice, with questions and interruptions, the presentation will stretch beyond an hour. The student's presentation should focus on the motivation for the research, the results obtained, and the astrophysical implications. Technical details are not necessary unless committee members specifically ask for them. 

At the end of the Research Exam, each committee member fills out a Research Paper Grade Report with an evaluation of the student's written Research Project Report. The chair of the REC, in consultation with the other members, then fills out the Research Paper Oral Examination Report. Committee members are urged to give detailed comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate and of the completed work. This will be helpful to the student, and will enable the CAS to gain a better idea of the student's preparation for thesis research. It is the responsibility of the student to submit the Research Paper Grade Reports, the Research Paper Oral Examination Report and a copy of the student's Research Project Report to the Department Office.


As indicated above, the student is expected to finish the Research Project before the end of the second year. Thus, the Exam Committee normally meets to conduct the Research Exam in the spring or summer of the student's second year. If completion of the project is delayed, it is the responsibility of the student and the supervisor to convene a one-hour meeting of the committee early in the fall term of the third year (before the end of September) to report on progress up to that point and to explain steps being taken to ensure completion of the Research Project. Students who have not completed their Research Exam by December of their third year will be required, with their advisor, to meet with the CAS. If the student has not completed the Research Exam by the end of the spring term of the third year, salary/stipend support is liable to be withdrawn and the student may not be allowed to register for the following year.